NEWTOWN, Conn. — He spoke for a nation in sorrow, but the slaughter of all those little boys and girls turned the commander in chief into another parent in grief, searching for answers.
Alone on a spare stage after the worst day of his tenure, President Barack Obama declared Sunday he will use “whatever power” he has to prevent shootings like the Connecticut school massacre, the second-deadliest school shooting in the nation’s history.
“What choice do we have?” Obama said at an evening vigil in the shattered community of Newtown, Conn.
“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”
For Obama, that was an unmistakable sign that he would at least attempt to take on the explosive issue of gun control. He made clear that the deaths compelled the nation to act and that he was the leader of a nation that was failing to keep its children safe.
He spoke of a broader effort, never outlining exactly what he would push for, but outraged by another shooting rampage. He did not utter the word “gun” during the 18-minute speech.
“Surely we can do better than this,” he said. “We have an obligation to try.”
The massacre of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary on Friday elicited horror around the world, soul-searching in the United States, fresh political debate and questions about the incomprehensible — what drove the 20-year-old suspect to kill his mother and then unleash gunfire on children.
The gunman, Adam Lanza, shot himself in the head just as he heard police drawing near to the classroom where he was slaughtering helpless children, but he had more ammunition at the ready in the form of multiple, high-capacity clips each capable of holding 30 bullets.
The disclosure on Sunday sent shudders throughout this grieving community as families sought to comfort each other during church services devoted to impossible questions like that of a 6-year-old girl who asked her mother: “The little children, are they with the angels?”
Obama closed his remarks by slowly reading the first names of each of the 26 victims, one of whom is the daughter of Ben Lomond High graduates Robbie and Alissa Parker.
“God has called them all home,” Obama said. “For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on and make our country worthy of their memory.”
Obama conceded that none of his words would ease the sorrow. But he declared to the community of Newtown: “You are not alone.”
Privately, Obama told the governor that Friday was the most difficult day of his presidency.
Newtown officials couldn’t say whether Sandy Hook Elementary School would ever reopen. The school district was considering sending surviving students to a former school building in nearby Monroe. But for many parents, it was much too soon to contemplate resuming school-day routines.
“We’re just now getting ready to talk to our son about who was killed,” said Robert Licata, the father of a boy who was at the school during the shooting but escaped harm. “He’s not even there yet.”