NEWTOWN, Conn. (CBSNewYork/AP) - President Barack Obama spoke Sunday night at a vigil in Newtown, Conn., mourning with a town still seeking to comprehend the unimaginable massacre of its children and teachers, and emphasizing that American society may no longer accept mass shootings.
Obama's visit came two days after Adam Lanza, 20, opened fire inside Sandy Hook Elementary School killing 26 people, including 20 boys and girls just 6 or 7 years old.
Obama praised the courage of the six adults – the principal, teachers and other school staff – who gave their lives.
"They responded as we all hope we might respond in such terrifying circumstances – with courage and with love – giving their lives to protect the children in their care," Obama said.
He also praised the first responders who had to put aside their own shock to do their job, and the children themselves, helping each other and dutifully following instructions.
"One child even tried to encourage a grown-up by saying, 'I know karate, so it's OK, I'll lead the way out,'" Obama said. "As a community, you've inspired us, Newtown. In the face of indescribable violence, in the face of unconscionable evil, you've looked out for each other, and you've cared for each other, and you've loved one another. This is how Newtown will be remembered. "And with time and God's grace that love will see you through."
But the pain felt by the massacre is absolutely horrifying for any parent, the president said.
"Someone once described the joy and the anxiety of parenthood as the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around. With their very first cry, this most precious vital part of ourselves -- our child – is suddenly exposed to the world; to possible mishap or malice. And every parent knows there's nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm, and yet we also know that with that child's very first step, and each step after that, they're separating from us; that we can't always be there for them," Obama said.
Obama said all parents realize they cannot keep their children safe all by themselves. They need the help of friends and neighbors, a community and a nation. And the nation needs to do more, he said.
"In that way, we come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we're counting on everybody else to help look after ours, and we're all parents, and they're all our children. This is our first task – caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how as a society we will be judged. And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we're meeting our obligations?"
The answer is disappointing, Obama said.
"If we're honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We're not doing enough, and we will have to change," he said.
Obama said no single law or set of laws can eliminate all violence or evil from the world, "but that can't be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this."
Obama said political squabbles are no excuse.
"We can't accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage; that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?" he said.
1010 WINS' John Montone reports
Obama arrived in Newtown around 5:20 p.m. Sunday. The service at Newtown High School began later in the evening with an address by the Rev. Matt Crebbin, senior minister of the Newtown Congregational Church, led the service, along with numerous other members of the local clergy.
He explained why all the members of the clergy and elected officials were sitting among the crowd instead of on the stage. The reason, Crebbin said, was because, "Now more than ever we need each other, for we are all in this together."
Afterward, Rabbi Shaul Prayer of Congregation Adathi led the Hebrew memorial prayer, followed by addresses by representatives of numerous faiths.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy also spoke, and emphasized the faith that he hoped would carry the community through the pain that the lone gunman had wrought.
"We are called upon – dare I say, required – to be invested in our faith – a faith so evident in this room and in this community at this time; a faith that at its very core is a gift from God; a gift in which we find comfort, and hope, and compassion; a faith in which we are given the power to go on; to survive that which has befallen this community; these families, these spouses," Malloy said.
Twenty-six candles were clustered in front of an altar in the stage in the school auditorium for the service.
WCBS 880's Ginny Kosola reports
Gunman Adam Lanza, 20, first killed his mother before driving to the school, opening fire in two classrooms and then taking his own life. He left 20 children and six adults dead at the school.
Obama visited privately Sunday with families of the victims and with emergency personnel who responded to the shootings.
Before the service, Obama posed for a picture with the baby granddaughter of Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of the school, who was killed in the massacre.
He also met with the family of one of the victims, Emilie Parker, 6, who had recently moved to Connecticut with her family.
Families Hope Obama's Presence Will Have Healing Power
Obama brought compassion and resolve to the 20 sets of grieving parents preparing to bury their 6- and 7-year-olds. As CBS 2's Jennifer McLogan reported, inside and out, the citizens of Newtown flocked to their high school, eager for words of solace and struggling to comprehend the shooting.
"It's absolutely amazing – knowing him as a parent and our president," said Kayla Hopson, who came to the service with her 6-year-old daughter, Lilliana.
Janine Caswell, a Sandy Hook parent, hoped Obama's presence would benefit the community.
"It's so tragic. It's so horrible, and I hope his presence here helps that healing process as much as it can," she said.
The streets outside were filled with mourners such as the Ogowetskys, who called for action
"My emotions are – I'm very sad inside to see innocent children," Cheryl Ogowetsky said tearfully.
"I am hoping this becomes the tipping point for change," added Barry Ogowetsky. "I am hoping that after the last child is buried the number one issue in this country is homeland security"
Away from the high school where Obama spoke, Newtown was a bizarre combination of a beautiful Connecticut town decorated for the holidays and the signs revealing the enormous tragedy there, WCBS 880's Ginny Kosola reported.
At Newtown United Methodist Church, one member of the congregation said he appreciates the President's visit to the community and his compassion.
The man told Kosola that because the president has two daughters, he understands the great loss suffered.
At the church, Sunday's planned Christmas pageant was canceled. Two of the children who were to perform were among those killed on Friday.
Obama could barely contain his emotions Friday, speaking tearfully at the White House and expressing his sympathy as a parent and a president.
Four Mass Shootings Since Obama Has Been President
For the president, this is the fourth trip of his presidency to a community still grieving from a mass shooting.
Just last summer, Obama went to Aurora, Colo., to visit victims and families after a shooting spree at a movie theater in the Denver suburb left 12 dead. He went to Tucson, Ariz., in January of last year after six people were killed and 13 wounded, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, outside a grocery store. And in November 2009, Obama traveled to Fort Hood, Texas, to speak at the memorial service for 13 service members who were killed on the post by another soldier.
"As a nation, we have endured far too many of these tragedies in the last few years,'' Obama said in his radio address Saturday.
The Newtown shootings and Obama's vague but declarative call for "meaningful action'' has reignited a debate over gun laws and raised an expectation among gun control advocates that Obama will seek changes. But public opinion in favor of gun control has declined over the years. And while the White House has said Obama stands by his desire to reinstate a ban on military-style assault weapons, he has not pushed Congress to act.
After the Colorado shooting in July, the White House made clear that Obama would not propose new gun restrictions in an election year and said he favored better enforcement of existing laws.
According to the Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence, Obama has signed into law more repeals of federal gun policies than President George W. Bush did during his two terms. Many of those repeals were inserted as amendments to broader, unrelated legislation. The Brady Campaign is named after James Brady, the former White House press secretary who was shot and disabled in the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981.
(TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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