President Barack Obama came to a city in mourning Thursday afternoon to console the grieving families of the nation’s deadliest mass shooting and tell them “our hearts are broken, too.”
Accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, the president met with survivors in wheelchairs and on hospital gurneys. He hugged the parents, siblings and partners of the victims, held hands with their friends, thanked the first responders, paramedics and hospital surgeons, and then, after a pilgrimage to a makeshift memorial to the victims, Obama turned to the cameras for yet another call to action against “weapons of war.”
“Today, once again, as has been true too many times before, I held and hugged grieving family members and parents and they asked, ‘Why does this keep happening,’ ” said the president after visiting families and friends of the 49 killed and 53 injured at the Pulse nightclub on Sunday. Biden stood by his side.
“And they pleaded that we do more — more to stop the carnage,” Obama said. “They don’t care about the politics. Neither do I. Neither does Joe. Neither should any parent out there who’s thinking about their kids being not in the wrong place, but in places where kids are supposed to be.”
It was a reprisal of this president’s now-frequent role as consoler-in-chief and a variation on a speech he has given before to families of mass shooting victims in San Bernardino, Aurora, Charleston and Newtown.
As he has done in the past, Obama’s visit with the families remained low-key and private, away from the glare of cameras and the inquiries of reporters.
He and Biden solemnly placed 49 white roses at a memorial for the victims at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and spent more than two hours meeting quietly with clusters of friends and families of victims at the Amway Center that is the downtown home of the NBA’s Orlando Magic.
There was nothing magical about the reason for the president’s visit to Florida’s favorite tourist destination. Omar Mateen opened fire in the popular gay nightclub early Sunday morning, committing the country’s worst mass shooting and spawning a renewed debate about terrorism and access to assault weapons.
“These families could be our families,” Obama said. “In fact, they are our family — they are part of the American family. Today, the vice president and I told them, on behalf of the American people, our hearts are broken, too.”
Obama said the nation was inspired by the courage of victims and those who came to their rescue. He commended the remarkable efforts of the community — its police and government leaders as well as its medical staff.
“As one of the doctors here said, ‘After the worst of humanity reared its evil head, the best of humanity came roaring back,’ ” he said.
In a 15-minute speech, Obama never once mentioned the name of the gunman, a Muslim who was born in Queens, New York, lived in Fort Pierce and spouted allegiance to ISIS on social media and in 911 calls. Experts say Mateen may have been motivated by an unusual combination of ISIS sympathies, gender insecurity, mental instability and a desire to target the LGBT community, but Obama suggested it was his method for murder that was familiar.
“Those who were killed and injured here were gunned down by a single killer with a powerful assault weapon,” he said. “The motives of this killer may have been different than the mass killers in Aurora, or Newtown. But the instruments of death were so similar.”
He vowed to “continue to be relentless against terrorist groups like ISIL and al-Qaida.” He promised to “destroy them, disrupt their networks and the financing and the flow of fighters in and out of war theaters.”
“We’re going to do all that. Our resolve is clear,” he said. “But given the fact that the last two terrorist attacks on our soil — Orlando and San Bernadino — were homegrown” and not carried out by external plots and vast networks “but by deranged individuals warped by the hateful propaganda that they had seen over the internet ... it’s going to require more than just our military.”
Obama suggested that “lone-wolf attacks, hatched in the minds of a disturbed person” are going to take “different kinds of steps.”
Although the president has advocated for laws that tighten access to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines for ammunition, he has been stymied by a reluctant Congress and a powerful gun lobby.
“This debate needs to change,” Obama said. “It’s outgrown the old political stalemates.” He said suggestions that “more people should be more similarly armed than the killer, defies common sense.”
Obama commended the U.S. Senate for being willing to hold votes next week on legislation to prevent people with terrorist ties from buying guns, and he said he hopes that “senators who voted no on background checks after Newtown have a change of heart.” He said he hoped the House “does the right thing and helps end the plague of violence that these weapons of war have on so many young lives.”
Obama also took an in-direct shot at those who support Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, and his call for a ban on Muslims and a wall to be built between the U.S. and Mexico.
“You can’t break up the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and denigrate groups because of the color of their skin or their faith or their sexual orientation and not feed something very dangerous in this world,” he said.
The president was briefly greeted at the airport a little after noon by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs. He traveled on Air Force One with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miami, and U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville. Traveling separately was U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Melbourne, who joined Obama and Biden in greeting the families.
“I’m angry that it’s a combination of ISIS-inspired, hate crime, anti-gay, mental instability and they would come to the happiest place and mow down 49 innocent people,” Nelson told reporters outside the Amway Center. “How many more times are he and Vice President Biden going to have to go through this. This is like the plague that is upon us.”
Scott was accompanied by FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen, his security and press entourage, and chief of staff Kim McDougal. The governor, who has remained in Orlando since the shooting, visited the Orlando Police Department during Obama’s visit and, later that evening, attended a prayer vigil for victims.
Dyer, who gave Obama an “Orlando Strong” T-shirt with a heart-shaped rainbow on it, said the president told him this was the 15th time he had “traveled to a community because of an event of this nature.”
As Obama attempted to turn the focus to the need to limit assault rifles, Republican Sen. John McCain said Obama is “directly responsible” for the mass shooting in Orlando because of the rise of the Islamic State group on the president’s watch. McCain later issued a statement saying that he “misspoke.”
McCain has been among the critics who argue that Obama’s decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq and his policies toward Syria directly contributed to ISIS’ ability to infiltrate those fractured nations to form its so-called caliphate.
“I did not mean to imply that the president was personally responsible,” McCain said in his statement. “I was referring to President Obama’s national security decisions, not the president himself.”
Mary Ellen Klas: meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas