Then he paused, tilting his head down and looking at his notes, for 12 long seconds. He wiped a tear from his left eye.
He continued: “They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.”
Then another pause, this time of seven seconds. Another tear wiped away. He looked down and sighed.
It was a remarkable moment in the usually sterile James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. A few feet away, off stage, press secretary Jay Carney and deputy chief of staff Alyssa Mastromonaco gripped each other’s hands and wept as they watched their boss speak.
But the scene, emotional as it was, also served to highlight Obama’s complicated and uneasy relationship with the issue of gun control, which most liberals strongly back but which the Democratic president has avoided. Obama has at various times hinted at a desire to toughen gun laws but has done nothing legislatively to advance the issue.
On Friday, after reciting a list of recent mass shootings, Obama said that “we have been through this too many times.” He called for “meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”
But he provided no specifics, and gun-control advocates immediately called on him to move swiftly to toughen firearms restrictions. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), one of the nation’s leading proponents of stronger gun limits, said Obama’s words were not enough.
“President Obama rightly sent his heartfelt condolences to the families in Newtown,” Bloomberg said in a statement. “But the country needs him to send a bill to Congress to fix this problem. Calling for ‘meaningful action’ is not enough. We need immediate action.”
Obama pledged to address gun violence in similarly general terms in January 2011, when he spoke at a memorial service for six people fatally shot in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson, Ariz. Thirteen other people were wounded in the incident, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
“We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence,” Obama said that night. “We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future.”
But Obama rarely spoke of the issue on the campaign trail. In July, four months before Election Day, a gunman opened fire with an assault rifle in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, killing 12 people and injuring nearly 60 others.
Soon after, Obama called for a “common-sense approach” to regulate assault-rifle sales. Speaking to the National Urban League, Obama said, “I, like most Americans, believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms.”
“But,” he added, “I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals.”