WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama again promised to push for “common sense” gun laws on Sunday evening as he stood before a somber and mournful crowd, this time gathered at the Marine Corps Barracks, struggling to make sense of what he called “yet another” mass shooting. Obama called for an end to the violence, an end to the political stalemate over the nation’s gun laws and an end to the resignation that these eruptions of violence are simply “the new normal.”
Fort Hood. Tucson. Aurora. Sandy Hook. Obama intoned the names of places that have been forever changed by mass shootings during his tenure as president. And now, on the macabre list is the Washington Navy Yard, where Aaron Alexis, a former Navy Reservist with a history of mental instability and violent and erratic behavior, shot and killed 12 people last week.
“Once more, our hearts are broken. Once more, we ask why,” Obama told a crowd of about 4,000 filling the bleachers at the Barracks, about four blocks from the Navy Yard’s Building 197, the site of the Sept. 16 rampage. “Once more, we seek strength and wisdom through God’s grace.”
It was an ordinary Monday that became a day of extraordinary horror, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, one of several speakers, said at the memorial service. Vice Admiral William Hilarides, head of Naval Sea Systems Command, his voice breaking, said the 12 victims — engineers and architects and people who helped build and maintain the Navy’s ships — were “killed in the line of duty.”
Obama, as he had on Saturday night before the Congressional Black Caucus, spoke with clipped frustration, making a determined call for change to the nation’s gun laws. The United States, he said, has more homicides and more violent crime than any other developed nation on Earth.
“These families have endured a tragedy,” Obama said, telling stories of each of the 12 so that they would not be mere statistics of violence, but full lives whose sudden loss will be deeply felt. He told stories of the victims handing out dictionaries to third graders, teaching Sunday school, and leaving India to live the American dream.
“It ought to be a shock to all of us as a nation and a people,” Obama said. “It ought to obsess us. It ought to lead us to some sort of transformation.”
Obama spoke of the United Kingdom and Australia, where mass shootings brought about changes to gun laws and have made such “carnage” a rarity.
The violence in America — some groups have counted 20 mass shootings since Obama was elected — is not inevitable, the president said. Americans are not inherently more violent than other people in other countries, he said.
“What’s different is that in America, it’s easy to get your hands on a gun,” Obama said. But, he said, the “politics are frozen.”
Last spring, lawmakers who had long pushed for expanding background checks — particularly at flea markets and gun shows where none are now required — and reinstating the assault weapons ban, thought that the time for action was ripe after 20 elementary school children were gunned down in December in Newtown, Conn. Polls showed more than 80 percent of the nation supported their efforts.
But those efforts died in Congress.
That, Obama said Sunday, has led to a feeling of resignation.
“We can’t accept this,” he said, urging the people to solve the problem at the ballot box, because Congress can’t or won’t. “As Americans bound in grief and love, we must insist here today there is nothing normal about innocent men and women being gunned down where they work. There is nothing normal about our children being gunned down in their classrooms. There is nothing normal about children dying in our streets from stray bullets.
“Our tears are not enough. Our words and our prayers not enough,” Obama said. “If we really want to honor these 12 men and women, if we really want to be a country were we can go to work, and go to school, and walk our streets free from senseless violence, without so many lives being stolen by a bullet from a gun, then we’re going to have change. We’re going to have to change.”
Speaking before the president at the memorial, Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray, D, said the country is “drowning in a sea of guns.”
“This time, it happened within the view of our Capitol Dome,” Gray said. “And I, for one, will not be silent about the fact that the time has come for action.”