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Last updated: December 17, 2012 3:39 am
President Barack Obama on Sunday night said America would have to “change” in order to protect its children, combining a message of comfort to the Connecticut town stricken by a deadly elementary school shooting with a strong signal that his administration would explore new steps to stem gun violence.
“We can’t tolerate this any more. These tragedies must end and to end them we must change,” Mr Obama told a prayer vigil in Newtown, 65 miles northeast of New York, where a gunman killed 20 children – aged six and seven – and seven adults in a rampage on Friday morning.
Though he did not mention any specific proposals forthcoming from the White House, Mr Obama struck a much more aggressive tone than he has in the past when confronted with similar deadly shooting incidents during his presidency, saying the massacre in Connecticut had left America facing “hard questions”.
“Are we really prepared to say we are powerless in the face of such carnage?” Mr Obama asked. “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”
Mr Obama said “surely we can do better than this”, then pledged to “use whatever power this office holds” in the coming weeks to prevent further bloodshed, before poignantly closing his remarks by reading out, one by one, the names of the children killed at the school. “God has called them all home,” Mr Obama said. “For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on and make our country worthy of their memory,” said the president, who had earlier met with families of the victims.
Mr Obama’s call for America’s paralysed political system to be jolted into action came as senior Democratic lawmakers called for tougher gun laws in the wake of Friday’s fatal shooting.
But finding political consensus for tougher gun laws will be an uphill struggle. Republicans, who are generally opposed to tightening restrictions on gun ownership, control the House of Representatives, and even some Democratic senators running for re-election in conservative states in 2014 may not support new legislation.
However, Dianne Feinstein of California, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that on the first day of the new Congressional term in January she would introduce a bill reinstating a ban on assault weapons that lapsed in 2004.
“It will ban the sale, the transfer, the importation and the possession [of assault weapons]. Not retroactively but prospectively. And it will ban the same for big clips, drums or strips of more than 10 bullets,” Ms Feinstein said on NBC’s “Meet the Press”.
Chuck Schumer, the New York senator, and Dick Durbin, the Illinois senator, both members of the Democratic leadership in the upper chamber, joined the call, suggesting the massacre in Connecticut could be a tipping point for the debate over gun control in the US.
“I think that what happened in Newtown, Connecticut, may at least lead some to finally decide to sit down and have this conversation,” Mr Durbin said on Fox News on Sunday, suggesting the impact on public opinion could be comparable to the terrorist attacks of 2001.
“I really think we may have a chance [of passing an assault weapons ban] because of this terrible tragedy. That’s what happened after 9/11. It can happen after Newtown, Connecticut, as well,” Mr Durbin said.
Although Mr Obama supports reinstating the assault weapons ban, he did not push for it aggressively during his first term. But his comments on Sunday night suggest he could take a more forceful position on gun legislation during his second term.
Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, urged Mr Obama to make gun control a top priority. “This should be his number one agenda. He’s the president of the United States and if he does nothing during his second term, something like 48,000 Americans will be killed with illegal guns,” Mr Bloomberg told NBC’s Meet the Press. “That is roughly the number of Americans killed in the whole Vietnam war.”
Guns were uppermost in the minds of the mourners who came to pay their respects in Sandy Hook on Sunday. Daniel Gregg, director of international programmes at the Connecticut Association of Schools, held flowers as he made his way toward a memorial in the middle of town.
Mr Gregg works with many schools in China, bringing exchange students to the area. He said there was already an outpouring of condolences from his colleagues in Asia, but also questions about US society’s tolerance of guns.
“I’ve already been receiving emails from China, two professors who were actually at Sandy Hook a number of years ago, others who know Connecticut, and some of them who actually know this particular school system. And quite frankly, just like everybody else, they’re very very sad,” he said, “We’re always going to have people who, for whatever reason, do things. But most countries in the world, particularly Japan, South Korea, China, I have the same conversation with them – why do we have so many guns around?”
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