NEWTOWN, Conn. — President Barack Obama traveled to this bereaved town Sunday evening, and chided the nation for having not done enough to protect its children, saying the country has to act to prevent such tragedies in the future.
“We can't tolerate this anymore," he said. “These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change."
Obama said that he will use the power of his office to confront the spate of shootings that have claimed so many lives, many of them children. He was not specific, but he made it clear that he will pursue change in the face of political opposition that has stopped new gun laws for years.
“I'll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens," he said, “in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have?"
Obama said the nation is failing at what he called “our first task," which he said was to care for the children of the nation.
“It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right," he said, asking: “Can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we are doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm?"
Obama asked whether the nation is doing enough to give all children a chance at a good life with “happiness and with purpose."
“If we are honest with ourselves, the answer is no," he said. “We are not doing enough, and we will have to change."
In a high school auditorium that might one day have showcased the musical performances of the children cut down at the Sandy Hook Elementary School nearby, the president listened as clergy offered prayers for the 27 people who were killed, 20 of them young children.
For Obama, the last three days have been an extraordinary moment of his presidency — one marked by the raw grief of his reaction at the White House on Friday and the tantalizing but vague suggestion that he might confront the scourge of gun violence.
The president's trip here came amid rising pressure to push for tighter regulation of guns in America. While aides tried to deflect that by saying it was a day for mourning, the streets outside the memorial service and the airwaves across the nation were filled with voices calling for legislative action. By contrast, the National Rifle Association and its most prominent supporters in Congress were largely absent from the public debate.
“These events are happening more frequently," Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., said here before the service began, “and I worry that if we don't take a thoughtful look at them, we're going to lose the pain, the hurt and the anger that we have now."
Lieberman, who is retiring, called for a national commission on mass violence, the reinstatement of a ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004 and tighter background checks on gun purchasers.
“If you go to a gun show, or buy a gun from some antique dealer, you're not checked at all," he said.
The state's other leaders added their endorsements of more laws.
“I'm hearing from the community, as well as my colleagues in law enforcement, we need to do something," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said on “This Week" on ABC.
The grieving in this small New England town, aired nonstop on national television, added emotional energy to an escalating debate about the role of firearms in the United States. The calls for more gun control that typically follow such events have evolved this time around into particular pressure on a newly re-elected Democratic president who has largely avoided the issue during four years in the White House.
Obama has long supported the restoration of the assault weapon ban, which first passed in 1994 only to set off a backlash among supporters of gun rights and help cost Democrats control of Congress.