NEWTOWN, Conn. — President Barack Obama, speaking at a memorial service for the victims of a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, said on Sunday the United States was not doing enough to protect its children and pledged to launch an effort to reduce violence.
“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them we must change,” Obama said at a somber interfaith service.
“In the coming weeks I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this,” he said. “Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.”
The comments were among Obama’s strongest on gun violence, but he stopped short — again — of issuing an explicit call for gun control or reform that would curtail gun owners’ rights.
Similar to previous speeches at similarly tragic events, Obama was not specific in saying how his renewed effort to reduce violence would play out.
But his remarks did suggest where he would start: by mentioning mental health professionals, law enforcement officers, and educators, the president carefully refrained from taking on gun enthusiasts and their powerful lobbyists.
He also made clear — perhaps in a nod to conservative Democrats and Republicans who are wary of rhetoric supporting gun control — that the cause of gun violence like that in Connecticut was complex.
“We will be told that the causes of such violence will be complex and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society,” he said.
“But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.”
And in a nod to anti-gun activists, the president suggested — at least implicitly — a that the constitutional protection of the right to bear arms should not prevent action on the wider problem.
“Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” he asked.
Obama has called for changes to federal gun laws before, including offering support for a renewed ban on assault weapons.
An earlier ban expired in 2004, and the president reiterated his backing for a new one in an October debate with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
But during his first term, Obama disappointed anti-gun activists by not making a more aggressive push to make guns less easily available in much of the country. After a shooting rampage at a Sikh temple inWisconsin this summer, the president said such events were happening with “too much regularity” but also stopped short of calling for new gun control laws.
On Friday, the day of the Connecticut shooting, Obama seemed to indicate a higher priority for dealing with gun violence and a desire to navigate the issue’s tricky political implications.
“We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics,” he said.
His remarks on Sunday echoed that call.
Picture of the crime
While townspeople grieved, investigators examined forensic evidence and scoured the crime scene in a process likely to extend for weeks. Many more witnesses needed to be interviewed, possibly including children who survived the attack, state police Lieutenant Paul Vance said.
Some of the bodies have been turned over to families, he said.
“We have the best of the best working on this case. … Our goal is to paint a complete picture so that we all know and the public knows exactly what happened here,” Vance said.
Painting part of that picture, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy said the gunman shot his way through a school door “using several rounds” before beginning to kill adults and children inside, then killed himself as police closed in.
“He discharged to make an opening and then went through it, went to the first classroom … went to the second classroom. We surmise that it was during the second classroom episode that he heard responders coming and apparently at that, decided to take his own life,” Malloy said on the ABC show “This Week.”
“This sick fellow, you know, clearly mentally ill, killed his mother, proceeded to go on and kill a great number of people,” Malloy added.
Vance said Lanza’s mother, Nancy Lanza – found dead on Friday at her home – was shot several times.
Townspeople and visitors took solace in church on Sunday. Mass at St. Rose Catholic church was packed. The priest’s announcements included news that the Christmas pageant rehearsal would go on as planned, but without 6-year-old Olivia Engel, killed on Friday before she could play the role of an angel.
Memorials draw mourners
Makeshift memorials appeared in this affluent town of 27,000 people about 80 miles from New York City. The largest, festooned with flowers and teddy bears, sat at the end of Dickenson Drive where Sandy Hook Elementary stands.
Residents and visitors streamed past a police roadblock to add to it. One woman knelt down and sobbed violently.
As children walked down the street in the rain, carrying their toys and signs, a man sat on the back of his parked car playing a mournful tune on a violin to accompany them.
“This is a time to come together,” said Carina Bandhaver, 43, who lives in nearby Southbury.
The children who survived will not have to return to the scene of the massacre. They will attend classes at an unused school in a Connecticut town about 7 miles away, school officials said. Classes elsewhere in the town will resume on Tuesday, except at Sandy Hook.
Several Democratic lawmakers called for a new push for U.S. gun restrictions on Sunday, including a ban on military-style assault weapons. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the author of an assault-weapons ban that lapsed in 2004, said she would introduce new legislation this week.
Gun rights advocates have countered that Connecticut already has among the strictest gun laws in the nation.
Police were trying to establish the relationship between Adam Lanza, Nancy Lanza and the school, and whether the mother and her sons were frequent visitors to gun ranges, according to a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation.
In addition to the military-style Bushmaster assault rifle, a civilian version of the weapon used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, police said Lanza carried Glock 10mm and Sig Sauer 9mm handguns into the school.
Nancy Lanza legally owned a Sig Sauer and a Glock, handguns commonly used by police, in addition to the long gun, according to law enforcement officials.
Lanza had struggled at times to fit into the community and his mother pulled him out of school for several years to homeschool him, said Louise Tambascio, the owner of My Place Restaurant, where his mother was a long-time patron.
Edith Honan, Martinne Geller, David Ingram and Chris Francescani, Daniel Trotta and Jim Loney contributed to this report.