ORLANDO, Fla. — A solemn President Barack Obama visited with grief-stricken families here Thursday, personally comforting many of them before forcefully calling on Washington, D.C., lawmakers to take action to end easy access to the “instruments of death.”
Obama’s somber visit, during which he and Vice President Joe Biden laid white roses at a makeshift memorial for the 49 people killed at a gay nightclub last weekend, was punctuated by his renewed demand that Congress tighten gun-control laws. The president’s unsuccessful push to enact stricter controls on firearms has left him frustrated for most of his 7 1/2 years in office.
“Those who defend easy access to assault weapons should meet these families and explain why that makes sense,” Obama said during a 15-minute statement to reporters outside a performing arts center in downtown Orlando, Florida.
“Why is it they think our liberty requires these repeated tragedies? That’s not the meaning of liberty,” the president added. He spoke with Biden standing next to him in front of a collection of wreaths, balloons, American flags and messages reading “Orlando strong” left by the public.
Obama’s appeal came as the Senate announced plans to hold a series of votes early next week on legislative proposals to ban those on a terrorist watch list from gaining gun licenses and to expand background checks to gun shows and Internet sales.
But his efforts to present the Orlando massacre as an opportunity for politicians to shed their partisanship and find common ground – Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., joined Obama on Air Force One – were rebuffed when another leading Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said Obama was “directly responsible” for the gruesome attacks here.
McCain, Obama’s opponent in the 2008 White House election, cited the administration’s failure to combat the rise of the Islamic State militant group, which the Orlando gunman, Omar Mateen, cited as an inspiration.
Later, McCain said he misspoke and did not hold the president “personally responsible” – instead citing Obama’s policies in Iraq and Syria.
In Orlando, Obama pledged to “destroy” the Islamic State and acknowledged the need to combat online propaganda from extremist groups. But he emphasized that Mateen was a U.S. citizen and said the debate over gun-control laws has “outgrown the old political stalemate.” Mateen is reported to have used a high-capacity, semiautomatic rifle and 9mm semiautomatic pistol – popular weapons that are commonly available in gun stores – in his shooting spree.
The president said he hoped lawmakers who blocked his 2013 gun-control push after the shooting deaths of 20 first-graders in Newtown, Connecticut, would have a change of heart. And he declared that “the notion that the answer to this tragedy would be to make sure that more people in a nightclub are similarly armed to the killer defies common sense.”
Obama and Biden, who traveled to Orlando separately, spent several hours meeting with some of the 53 shooting victims who survived the attack, the families of the deceased, the owners of the Pulse nightclub where the rampage occurred and first responders, including law enforcement and medical personnel.
Though the meetings took place in private with the families – many of whom are Latino and speak limited English – Obama described a distraught scene.
“Today, once again, as has been true too many times before, I held and hugged grieving family members and friends, and they asked why does this keep happening,” Obama said. “They pleaded that we do more to stop” such killings.
Patience Carter, 20, who was shot in both legs at the nightclub, said Obama and Biden spoke with each of the families at the Amway Center, the downtown sports arena. The president alluded to “trying to improve certain things to make sure that something like this never happens again,” she said, but he did not address any specific new proposals.
“It was more so an emotional thing, making sure the people knew he was there personally every step of the way during this time of bereavement and grieving,” Carter said in an interview. She said Obama hugged her and complimented her on her outfit, a patterned dress, and gently teased her about only wearing one shoe because her other foot is too swollen.
The visit marked at least the ninth time Obama has visited the scene of a mass shooting, a grim ritual that has come to define an era in American life. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., who represents the congressional district that includes Orlando, also joined Obama on the presidential jet, and they were greeted on the tarmac by Gov. Rick Scott , R, and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, D.
The mayor presented the president a T-shirt reading “Orlando United” and emblazoned with a heart-shaped rainbow, symbolizing gay pride. As Obama and Biden met with families, Rubio toured the memorial site and stopped for a moment of prayer with local residents.
Obama has expressed deep frustration at his inability to push stricter gun laws through Congress. In 2013, the Senate rejected each of the major proposals from the Obama administration in a stunning defeat for the president.
“This was a pretty shameful day for Washington,” a visibly angry Obama said in April 2013 during a Rose Garden address during which he was flanked by gun-control advocates, including former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was permanently wounded in a 2011 shooting.
Since then, the president has enacted a series of small-scale executive actions on guns, but the White House has not mounted another legislative push and it is unlikely to do so with seven months remaining in Obama’s tenure.
On the 2016 campaign trail, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has called for stricter gun laws, while her presumptive Republican opponent, Donald Trump, suggested this week that he would support a ban on gun sales to those on the terror watch list, a potential break from Republican Party orthodoxy.
“I truly hope that senators rise to the moment and do the right thing,” Obama said. “We can stop some tragedies. We can save some lives. If we don’t act, we will keep seeing more massacres like this.”
Nakamura reported from Washington.