The Washington Post

A normally stoic president sheds tears over mass shooting of ‘our children’

President Barack Obama teared up Friday as he addressed the nation after a mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. left 27 people dead, including 20 children. (The Washington Post)

President Obama, so often cool and unemotional, struggled to maintain his composure Friday as he addressed a nation reeling from a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.

“The majority of those who died today were children — beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old,” Obama said partway into a four-minute statement.

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.”

So far, though, his administration has not proposed any measures to accomplish that goal.

Before Obama spoke in mid­afternoon, Carney told reporters that there would be “a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates, but I don’t think today is that day.”

Gun-control advocates launched a petition drive on the White House Web site Friday that garnered 20,000 signatures by late afternoon, while demonstrators formed a candlelight vigil outside Obama’s residence. “Mr. President, we are praying for your action,” read one sign. “Enough is enough,” read another.

On Friday, with 20 children among the 27 victims, Obama said he reacted to the news not as a president but as a father. He referred to the dead as “our children.”

“This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter, and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another,” Obama said. “But there are families in Connecticut who cannot do that tonight, and they need all of us right now.”

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who considers himself a friend of the president, said, “Those were tears that came from deep, deep, deep within. . . . He’s the type of guy who’s cool, always calm, always able to hold it together, but then there come these events that you don’t have the answers to.”

The personal tone of Obama’s remarks evoked his comments in March, when he said that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” referring to Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old black teenager fatally shot in Florida by a neighborhood watch member.

Obama has shed tears in public before, but even as a wartime commander in chief, he had never done so in marking a national tragedy.

In the closing days of his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama cried at an evening rally in Virginia soon after the death of his grandmother. Concluding his 2012 reelection race, he wept thanking an audience in Des Moines for supporting his candidacy. Two days later, with victory in the last race of his life safely in hand, Obama choked up while addressing campaign staff and volunteers in Chicago.

On Friday, Obama ended his comments by quoting Scripture. “Heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds,” he said.

Then he walked away in silence. The flag atop the White House was lowered to half-staff.

Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.
Scott Wilson is the chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Previously, he was the paper’s deputy Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News after serving as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
Republicans debated Saturday night. The South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses are next on Feb. 20. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Dan Balz says...
Rarely has the division between Trump and party elites been more apparent. Trump trashed one of the most revered families in Republican politics and made a bet that standing his ground is better than backing down. Drawing boos from the audience, Trump did not flinch. But whether he will be punished or rewarded by voters was the unanswerable question.
GOP candidates react to Justice Scalia's death
Quoted
I don't know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn't speak Spanish.
Sen. Marco Rubio, attacking Sen. Ted Cruz in Saturday night's very heated GOP debate in South Carolina. Soon after, Cruz went on a tirade in Spanish.
The Fix asks The State's political reporter where the most important region of the state is.
The State's Andy Shain says he could talk about Charleston, which represents a little bit of everything the state has to offer from evangelicals to libertarians, and where Ted Cruz is raising more money than anywhere else. In a twist, Marco Rubio is drawing strong financial support from more socially conservative Upstate. That said, Donald Trump is bursting all the conventional wisdom in the state. So maybe the better answer to this question is, "Wherever Trump is."
Past South Carolina GOP primary winners
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the first state in the South to vote, where he faces rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
67% 22%
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

March 6: Democratic debate

on CNN, in Flint, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.