NEWTOWN, Conn. -- President Barack Obama delivered "the love and prayers of a nation" to a solemn crowd here Sunday night, but said the nation faces "hard questions" and even tougher answers in the aftermath of the mass shooting that killed 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Obama made no specific policy promises, but he signaled that this tragedy could change Americans' views on guns and violence -- and that he was prepared to lead the way.
"In the coming weeks, I'll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens -- from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators -- in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this," Obama said. "Because what choice do we have? We can't accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage? That the politics are too hard?"
"Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?" Obama asked the auditorium at Newtown High School, a black curtain and the American and Connecticut flags behind him. "I've been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we're honest with ourselves, the answer's no."
Obama listed the three other mass shootings he's had to respond to since taking office nearly four years ago, plus the countless acts of violence that happen each day across the country. "We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change," he said, reading not from a teleprompter but from printed text in a brown leather folio. "Surely we can do better than this."
Though he said laws alone could never prevent tragedies like Friday's mass shooting, "that can't be an excuse for inaction," he said, not once mentioning guns or laws to restrict them.
"Are we prepared that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?"
Candles -- one for each victim -- sat, unlit, on a black-draped table in front of the podium as the president spoke, following prayers from a diverse collection of clergy and remarks by Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy.
The country and the world could hear Newtown's tears as the crowd broke down, gasping and sobbing, as the president recited the names of the adults who died early on in his speech and the first names of each child who died as he concluded his remarks.
"For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on and make our country worthy of their memory," Obama said.
To the families of those killed and to the survivors, Obama offered his consolation.
"You must know that whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide. Whatever portion of sadness we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will bear it. Newtown, you are not alone," he told the town of 30,000. The country, he added, has been inspired by "stories of strength and resolve and sacrifice"
As he introduced Obama, Malloy said the president had told him that Friday had been the most difficult day of his presidency. Hit hard not only as a leader but as a father, Obama took the lead in writing the speech, with help from speechwriter Cody Keenan, who also assisted with Obama's post-Tucson shooting speech and went to high school in Connecticut.
Before the 90-minute program started, families streamed into the auditorium of Newtown High School, just a mile and a half from the site of the massacre. Adults - many wearing ribbons in the green and white school colors pinned to their lapels -- greeted each other with hugs. Many children clutched floppy-eared brown plush dogs that the local Red Cross was distributing outside.
First responders were cheered and applauded as they entered the auditorium as the vigil began.
They listened to the president's speech at the end of the memorial service commemorating the 26 people -- including 20 children -- killed Friday. Before the vigil, Obama met with victims' families and first responders, as well as Malloy and the state's congressional delegation.
"We needed this. We needed to be together here in this room, in the gymnasium, outside the doors of this school, in living rooms around the world. We needed to be together to show that we are together and united," Rev. Matt Crebbin of the Newtown Congregational Church said at the start of the program.
This was the second time this year and fourth since taking office that Obama arrived to help lead the mourning over the victims of a mass shooting. In July, it was 12 dead and 58 injured at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater.
Just under two years ago, it was six killed and 13 -- including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) -- injured outside a Tucson supermarket. Before that, it was Fort Hood, Texas, where a U.S. Army major killed 13 people and wounded 29 in November 2009.
"Since I've been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings," Obama said Sunday. "The fourth time we've hugged survivors, the fourth time we've consoled the families of victims. And, in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and cities all across America."
Over the summer, he said in a speech to the National Urban League that many "steps to reduce violence have been met with opposition in Congress. This has been true for some time -- particularly when it touches on the issues of guns."
But several high-profile Democrats have begun to sketch out courses of action in response to Friday's massacre.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Sunday that she would introduce a bill renewing the federal assault weapons ban on the first day of the new Congress. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also voiced support for the assault weapons ban and new restrictions on high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Durbin and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), who is retiring next month, have proposed creating a national commission to study mass shootings.
"These events are happening more frequently and I worry that if we don't take a thoughtful look at them, we're going to lose the hurt and the anger that we have now," Lieberman said in an interview in the Newtown High School auditorium.
On the afternoon of the shooting, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) -- who became a gun-control advocate after her husband was killed and her son was seriously injured in a mass shooting on a Long Island commuter train -- told POLITICO that she planned to "embarrass" Obama into acting on guns. On Sunday, she called on Obama to "lead us on this issue," beginning by following through on Justice Department recommendations to improve background checks.
Coming after a string of high-profile mass shootings with the emotional pull of so many childrens' lives lost, Friday's shooting might be the "tipping point" that makes passing new gun control legislation possible, Schumer said on CBS's "Face the Nation." Another Senate Democrat, Connecticut's Richard Blumenthal, offered a similar view, suggesting that the shooting in his state would "spur and transform" the national conversation about guns.
Congressional Republicans and Democrats from red states have largely stayed quiet on the issue -- the 31 members of the incoming Senate considered "pro-gun" by the NRA all declined requests to appear Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
One of the few to speak out this weekend was Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Texas), who in an appearance on "Fox News Sunday" called for an "open-minded" conversation about guns and suggested that the students at Sandy Hook would have been better off if the school's principal, who appears to have been killed while trying to tackle the gunman, had an assault rifle in her office.
But New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent who co-founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns, dismissed this kind of logic.
"We just don't need guns everyplace. We don't need people carrying guns in public places," Bloomberg said. "That's not what the Founding Fathers had in mind. It doesn't add to anybody's safety. Quite the contrary. It makes us have a much more dangerous society."
Jennifer Epstein reported from Washington; Reid J. Epstein reported from Newtown, Conn.
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