NEWTOWN, Conn. — President Obama offered “the love and prayers of a nation” to a community reeling from a horrorific school shooting, but his words at Sunday’s memorial service were directed at the nation and charged with a resolve to curb gun violence.
“Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage? That the politics are too hard?” he asked.
His remarks came after he met first responders and relatives of 20 first-graders and six teachers shot to death at Sandy Hook School on Friday morning.
It was the fourth time in his administration he’s traveled to communities torn apart by mass shootings.
“It’s the fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims,” the President said, referring to shootings in Colorado, Arizona, and Wisconsin. “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end, and to end them we must change.”
He stopped short of explicitly advocating for gun-control legislation but said the country hasn’t done enough to keep children safe from harm and that he would use “whatever power this office holds” to stop the kind of violence that ravaged Sandy Hook School.
He said no single law or set of laws can eliminate evil or prevent every senseless act, but that’s no excuse for inaction. “Surely we can do better than this,” he said.
The victims in Newtown died at the hands of 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who forced his way into the school and opened fire in two classrooms. He shot each victim multiple times with a high-powered rifle, some from close range, before taking his own life as police arrived. Earlier Friday he had killed his mother in her nearby home.
Police said the shooter had three guns registered to his mother and enough ammunition to kill all 670 students in the school if police hadn’t arrived quickly and stormed the building.
“There was a lot of ammo, a lot of clips,” state police Lt. J. Paul Vance said. “Certainly a lot of lives were potentially saved.”
As it was, it was the second-worst school shooting in U.S. history.
The interfaith service at Newtown High School — 1½ miles from the shooting site — drew mourners and sympathizers from all parts of Connecticut and as far as New Jersey and Massachusetts. They filled all 950 seats in the high school auditorium and the gym, where hundreds more watched over a video monitor.
Some had lined up for hours in a cold drizzle along the road, many carrying flowers. One woman had a bouquet of white balloons with “RIP beautiful angels” written on them in purple ink.
Inside the high school, First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra, the highest-ranking town official, said the horror inflicted on Sandy Hook School was an angry, desperate act of a confused man.
“This is a defining moment for our town, but it does not define us. We are Newtown, a special and caring place. We are defined by acts of courage, by acts of love, and by our continuing commitment and love for our children and families,” she said.
The service was hosted by the Newtown Interfaith Clergy Association and included prayers by clergy from Episcopal, Congregational, Methodist, Islamic, Jewish, Baha’i, Catholic, and Lutheran faiths. In English and in Hebrew, prayers were sung, spoken, and chanted in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.
Parents clutched their children, who in turn clutched small stuffed dogs the American Red Cross had distributed, and first responders clutched each other. Clergy prayed for all.
“May they feel the healing embrace of a neighborhood, a town, a nation, a world,” said the Rev. Mel Kawakami of Newtown United Methodist Church.
The service began an hour later than expected because the President and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy had extended visits with first responders and victims’ families. The White House declined to release information about the President’s private interactions with the families.
Greg Williams, whose sons attend Sandy Hook School, said he came to the service in a quest to heal. His sons, Asher, 5, Elijah, 6, and Isaiah, 8, each lost friends in the shootings. The boys are getting counseling to help cope.
Privately, the President told Mr. Malloy that Friday was the worst day of his presidency.
In his remarks, Mr. Obama said he knows his words can’t match the depths of the families’ sorrow, but he hoped it would help for them to know they aren’t alone in their grief.
“Our world, too, has been torn apart,” he said. “All across this land of ours, we have wept with you.”
He said Newtown is an inspiration to the nation. “In the face of indescribable violence, in the face of unconscionable evil, you looked out for each other and you’ve cared for each other and you’ve loved one another,” he said.
The shock of what happened began to settle, leaving a grieving town of 26,000 with the questions of why and how: Why did Lanza choose Sandy Hook School? Why would the mother of a troubled 20-year-old keep a weapons arsenal in her home? How could anyone shoot 20 first-graders? How will this quiet New England bedroom community ever be the same?
Some were looking for answers at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church on Sunday, when the building was evacuated during the noon Mass over an unspecified threat.
Brian Wallace, Diocese of Bridgeport’s director of communications, said he didn’t know the threat’s specific nature or whether the phone call came to the church or to police.
Mr. Vance, state police spokesman, could not immediately be reached.
“It was credible enough that police thought they had to be investigating,” Mr. Wallace said. At least eight officers with shields, helmets, and assault rifles checked the church and the adjacent rectory and Catholic school. They found nothing.
Evelyn Leon, 17, who lives 20 miles east in Waterbury, was sitting with her family in the back of the church when it was evacuated. “Everybody was just rushing out. People didn’t know what to do,” she said.
Mr. Wallace said the church had been open continuously since the shooting, but religious leaders decided to keep it closed for the rest of Sunday while they prepared for eight funerals, one for each of the first-grade shooting victims who had been members of the parish.
“This has been a place of refuge where the community can collectively express its grief and unity,” he said. “The priority now is working with the people who have lost children.”
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Tracie Mauriello is Washington bureau chief for the Post-Gazette.
Contact Tracie Mauriello at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 703-996-9292.