Obama: U.S. Must "Reckon" With Mass Violence
President Obama said the Charleston, S.C., shooting deaths of nine people inside the South’s oldest black church Wednesday night was “a tragedy” made “particularly heartbreaking” because the murders happened in a place of “solace and peace.”
Speaking with evident emotion in the White House briefing room Thursday before departing for planned events in California, the president, accompanied by Vice President Biden, said he and first lady Michelle Obama personally knew the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was among those gunned down.
Pinckney endorsed Obama’s bid for the White House in 2007, which is when they met, according to the president’s spokesman.
For eight minutes during his comments, the president appeared alternately somber and agitated, veering from his prepared text to register his alarm that once again a mass shooting with racial overtones forced him to offer private and public reassurances to a grief-stricken community and to families.
“I’ve had to make statements like this too many times,” Obama said, his voice rising.
Biden, his hands clasped in front of him and his lips pursed in a deep frown, turned to look at the president at that moment. He nodded his head.
The deaths of six women and three men among 13 people who worshiped Wednesday night in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church rocked Charleston and South Carolina, and drew condolences from around the nation. The president learned of the shootings Wednesday night.
Without commenting on the suspected gunman in custody, who is white, Obama turned his attention to gun violence, and to the racial hatreds and discrimination that the Charleston church, founded in 1816, battled throughout its long and challenging history.
“This kind of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” the president said. “We don’t have all the facts but we do know that once again innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”
Acknowledging the immediate need for mourning and law-enforcement fact-finding, Obama nevertheless wasted no time before looking to Congress, the gun-rights lobby and the American public as part of the decades-long debate about gun violence.
“Let’s be clear,” he said with urgency in his voice. “At some point we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence … doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it.”
Without being explicit about the “something” he had in mind, Obama’s remarks and Biden’s presence at his side recalled their unsuccessful efforts to persuade Congress to adopt gun control legislation following the murders of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school in December 2012.
Looking into the distance, his voice slowing as he weighed his words from the podium, Obama sounded like a president with deep misgivings that America’s struggles with issues of race, guns, mental health, and justice will need to be taken up by his successors.
“I say that, recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now,” he continued. “But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point, it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.”
Obama clearly understood his comments would inject the gun control debate into the presidential contest, which is well underway.
“The president has been very clear about his position on this issue,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters on Air Force One as Obama flew to California to headline Democratic National Committee fundraisers. The White House reminded reporters about the executive actions and administrative initiatives the president ordered after 2012 in the absence of legislative action.
On Thursday, the president and vice president both made calls to Charleston’s mayor, Joseph P. Riley Jr., and Obama spoke with church leaders and other South Carolina officials before delivering his public remarks.
The president is scheduled to speak to the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in California and to a fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Friday, and no immediate changes had been made to his schedule, Schultz said Thursday afternoon.
It was unclear if Obama would attend funerals or speak at any events in Charleston, he added.
Obama said the FBI is investigating the Charleston murders as federal hate crimes. “Justice,” he vowed, “would be served.”
Attorney General Loretta Lynch, speaking at the Justice Department before Obama’s remarks, confirmed a suspect, reported to be 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, was apprehended at a Shelby, N.C., traffic stop about three hours away from where the crimes occurred. Relatives reported to the media that Roof received a handgun as a gift for his birthday.