Obama consoles a bereaved Newtown and vows to take action to address gun violence

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NEWTOWN, Conn. -- President Barack Obama offered "the love and prayers of a nation" to a community reeling from a massive school shooting, but his words at Sunday's interfaith 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 educators shot to death Friday morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

It was the fourth time in his administration that he has 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 the Connecticut school.

"We can't accept events like this as routine," the president said.

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.

An unnamed Connecticut official said the gunman's mother, Nancy Lanza, 52, was found dead in her pajamas in bed, shot four times in the head with a .22-caliber rifle. The killer then went to the school with guns he took from his mother, broke a window to get inside and began blasting his way through the building.

The official also says Adam Lanza killed himself with a single bullet to the head from a 10 mm gun, and the bullet was recovered in a classroom wall.

Police said Lanza had three guns registered to his mother and enough ammunition to kill all 450 students in the school if police hadn't arrived quickly and stormed the building, saying he had more ammunition at the ready in the form of multiple, high-capacity clips each capable of holding 30 bullets.

"There was a lot of ammo, a lot of clips," said state police Lt. J. Paul Vance. "Certainly a lot of lives were potentially saved."

As it was, it was the second worst school shooting in American history.

The interfaith service at Newtown High School -- a mile and a half from the shooting site -- drew mourners and sympathizers from all parts of Connecticut and as far away as New Jersey and Massachusetts. They filled all 950 seats in the high school auditorium and the gymnasium, where hundreds more watched over a video monitor.

Some had lined up for hours in a cold drizzle along Berkshire Road, many carrying flowers. One woman had a bouquet of white balloons with "RIP beautiful angels" written on them in purple ink.

Eleven-year-old Sofia Rodriguez brought a letter in a sealed envelope that she hoped to give to the president. In it, she said, she asks him to do more to protect children.

Sofia, of nearby Trumbull, said she wanted to attend the vigil to support the survivors.

"The people that survived will be sad because children's friends died. It's very sad," said Sofia, who attended the vigil with her mother, Olga, and older sister, Laura.

Inside the high school, First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra, the highest-ranking town official, said the horror inflicted on Sandy Hook Elementary 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. Prayers were sung, spoken and chanted in English, Hebrew and Arabic.

Parents clutched their children, who in turn clutched the small stuffed dogs that the American Red Cross had distributed, and first responders clutched each other. Clergy prayed for all of them.

"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 in six classrooms. The White House declined to release information about the president's private interactions with the families.

Greg Williams, whose sons attend the elementary 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 Friday's shooting. The boys are receiving counseling to help them 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 that 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.

Many local, state and federal lawmakers attended Sunday's service, including Democratic U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro and John Larson of Connecticut, who traveled to Connecticut on Air Force One with the president.

Family members of slain teachers and students were escorted inside by state troopers. Security around the school was tight, with police from several surrounding towns assisting with traffic control.

Trumbull First Selectman Timothy Herbst, his town's highest ranking official, recalled the sorrow Friday night when he visited the home of slain school psychologist Mary Sherlach.

"It's a horrible, horrible thing, and we think it can't happen in our town, but it can happen anywhere," said Mr. Herbst, who attended the memorial service.

The shock of what happened had begun to settle in on Sunday, leaving a grieving town of 26,000 with the questions of why and how.

Why did Lanza choose Sandy Hook Elementary? Why would the mother of a troubled 20-year-old keep an arsenal of weapons 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 Sunday at Saint Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, when the building was evacuated in the middle of the noon Mass because of an unspecified threat.

Brian Wallace, director of communications for the Diocese of Bridgeport, said he didn't know the specific nature of the threat or whether the phone call came to the church or to police.

Mr. Vance, the 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 but found nothing.

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 congregation.

"This has been a place of refuge where the community can collectively express its grief and unity," Mr. Wallace said. "The priority now is working with the people who have lost children."

U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I- Conn., told reporters Sunday the government should establish a national commission on violence.

"These events are happening more frequently," said Mr. Lieberman, who did not seek re-election in November.

"This one, it haunts me," he said after passing through metal detectors with his wife, Hadassah, on his way into the memorial service.

He wants the commission to consider new gun laws as well as the effects of violence in pop culture. He wants to ban assault weapons and require gun shows and antique gun dealers to conduct the same background checks as firearms dealers.

U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., said there is an "infusion of energy" within the state congressional delegation to restrict ownership of high-capacity magazines like the weapons Lanza used.


Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 703-996-9292. The Associated Press contributed. First Published December 17, 2012 5:00 AM


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