WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, so often cool and unemotional, struggled to maintain his composure Friday as he addressed a nation reeling from a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.
“The majority of those who died today were children — beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old,” Obama said partway into a four-minute statement.
Then he paused, tilting his head down and looking at his notes, for 12 long seconds. He wiped a tear from his left eye.
He continued: “They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.”
Then another pause, this time of seven seconds. Another tear wiped away. He looked down and sighed.
It was a remarkable moment in the usually sterile James Brady Press Briefing Room. A few feet away, off stage, press secretary Jay Carney and deputy chief of staff Alyssa Mastromonaco gripped each other’s hands and wept as they watched their boss speak.
But the scene, emotional as it was, also served to highlight Obama’s complicated and uneasy relationship with the issue of gun control, which most liberals strongly back but which the Democratic president has avoided. Obama has at various times hinted at a desire to toughen gun laws but has done nothing legislatively to advance the issue.
On Friday, after reciting a list of recent mass shootings, Obama said that “we have been through this too many times.” He called for “meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”
But he provided no specifics, and gun-control advocates immediately called on him to move swiftly to toughen firearms restrictions. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent and one of the nation’s leading proponents of stronger gun limits, said Obama’s words were not enough.
“President Obama rightly sent his heartfelt condolences to the families in Newtown,” Bloomberg said. “But the country needs him to send a bill to Congress to fix this problem. Calling for ‘meaningful action’ is not enough. We need immediate action.”
Obama pledged to address gun violence in similarly general terms in January 2011, when he spoke at a memorial service for six people fatally shot in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson, Ariz. Thirteen other people were wounded in the incident, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.
“We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence,” Obama said that night. “We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future.”
But Obama rarely spoke of the issue on the campaign trail. In July, four months before Election Day, a gunman opened fire with an assault rifle in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, killing 12 people and injuring nearly 60 others.
Soon after, Obama called for a “common-sense approach” to regulate assault-rifle sales. Speaking to the National Urban League, Obama said, “I, like most Americans, believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms.”
“But,” he added, “I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals.”
So far, though, his administration has not proposed any measures to accomplish that goal.
Before Obama spoke in midafternoon, Carney told reporters that there would be “a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates, but I don’t think today is that day.”
Gun-control advocates launched a petition drive on the White House website Friday that garnered 20,000 signatures by late afternoon, while demonstrators formed a candlelight vigil outside Obama’s residence. “Mr. President, we are praying for your action,” read one sign. “Enough is enough,” read another.
On Friday, with 20 children among the 27 victims, Obama said he reacted to the news not as a president but as a father. He referred to the dead as “our children.”
“This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter, and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another,” Obama said. “But there are families in Connecticut who cannot do that tonight, and they need all of us right now.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who considers himself a friend of the president, said, “Those were tears that came from deep, deep, deep within. … He’s the type of guy who’s cool, always calm, always able to hold it together, but then there come these events that you don’t have the answers to.”
The personal tone of Obama’s remarks evoked his comments in March, when he said that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” referring to Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old black teenager fatally shot in Florida by a neighborhood watch member.
Obama has shed tears in public before, but even as a wartime commander in chief, he had never done so in marking a national tragedy.
In the closing days of his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama cried at an evening rally in Virginia soon after the death of his grandmother. Concluding his 2012 reelection race, he wept thanking an audience in Des Moines for supporting his candidacy. Two days later, with victory in the last race of his life safely in hand, Obama choked up while addressing campaign staff and volunteers in Chicago.
On Friday, Obama ended his comments by quoting Scripture. “Heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds,” he said.
Then he walked away in silence. The flag atop the White House was lowered to half-staff.