WASHINGTON — President Obama’s rage about gun massacres, building for years, spilled out Thursday night as he acknowledged his own powerlessness to prevent another tragedy and pleaded with voters to force change themselves.
“So tonight, as those of us who are lucky enough to hug our kids a little closer are thinking about the families who aren’t so fortunate,” the president said in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, named for a man severely wounded by a would-be assassin’s bullet, “I’d ask the American people to think about how they can get our government to change these laws, and to save these lives and let these people grow up.”
Mr. Obama admitted that he was unable to do anything to prevent such tragedies by himself. And he did little to try to hide the anger and frustration that have deepened as he returns again and again to the White House lectern in the wake of a deadly mass shooting.
Mr. Obama took a veiled swipe at the National Rifle Association, which has successfully fought most limits on gun use and manufacture and has pushed through legislation in many states making gun ownership far easier. “And I would particularly ask America’s gun owners who are using those guns properly, safely, to hunt for sport, for protecting their families, to think about whether your views are being properly represented by the organization that suggests it is speaking for you,” he said.
Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the N.R.A., declined to respond to Mr. Obama, saying that it was the organization’s policy “not to comment until all the facts are known.” Wayne LaPierre, the organization’s executive vice president, declared after the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
On Thursday night, Mr. Obama said that given the frequency of mass shootings, people had “become numb to this.”
“And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation,” Mr. Obama said. “Right now, I can imagine the press releases being cranked out. ‘We need more guns,’ they’ll argue. ‘Fewer gun-safety laws.’ ”
“Does anybody really believe that?” he asked, his voice rising.
Mr. Obama sought to answer that question years ago. After the massacre in 2012 of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, he promised to use all the powers of his office to push for legislative changes that polls suggest were widely supported.
“Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?” Mr. Obama asked then.
Less than a month later, Mr. Obama unveiled a proposal to overhaul the nation’s gun laws that would have included universal background checks and a spate of other measures he deemed “concrete steps” aimed at preventing more mass shootings.
“This is how we will be judged,” he said in January 2013.
The judgment came just a few months later, as lawmakers from both parties forcefully rejected the centerpiece of the president’s gun control agenda. At the time, and also visibly upset, Mr. Obama stood in the Rose Garden to denounce the opponents of new gun measures even as he acknowledged the futility of his efforts.
He called it a “shameful day” in Washington and promised that eventually, “I believe we’re going to be able to get this done.” In a Twitter message on Thursday, Dan Pfeiffer, who was a senior adviser to Mr. Obama until this year, remembered that afternoon as “the most frustrated I ever saw President Obama in 8 years.”
With each massacre since, Mr. Obama has been forced to help the country grieve, as presidents are called upon to do in national tragedies. Thirteen dead at the Washington Navy Yard; three dead at Fort Hood in Killeen, Tex.; nine dead in a church in Charleston, S.C.
And with each massacre, his sense of powerless anger and frustration has built.
But what was different this time was that the president did not announce any new initiative or effort to fix the problem. Instead, he pointed out that there is “a gun for roughly every man, woman and child in America. So how can you with a straight face make the argument that more guns will make us safer?”
States and countries that have gun limits have far fewer gun deaths than those that do not, he said. “So we know there are ways to prevent it,” he said.
He pointed out that the government responds to mine disasters by insisting on safer mines, to weather disasters by improving community safety, and to highway deaths by fixing roads and insisting that drivers wear seatbelts.
But guns are seen as so different that Congress has forbidden the federal government even to collect certain statistics, he said. He rejected the notion that the Constitution forbids even modest regulation of deadly weapons.
He also asked news organizations to tally the number of Americans killed by terrorist attacks over the last 10 years and compare that with the number killed by domestic gun violence. And he implicitly compared the trillions of dollars spent and multiple agencies devoted to preventing the relatively few terrorism deaths with the minimal effort and money spent to prevent the far greater number of gun deaths.
And then he challenged voters to make gun safety a priority.
“If you think this is a problem, then you should expect your elected officials to reflect your views,” he said.
Mr. Obama has long been seen as fairly unemotional, even distant. His speeches since being elected in 2008 have sometimes seemed like lectures from the constitutional law professor he once was. But he is also a father, one who insists on eating dinner with his daughters.
Shootings, particularly at schools, have seemingly brought together his roles as president and father in ways nothing else has. And that combination brings forth the kind of raw emotion he almost never betrays.
His eulogy in June for the victims of the massacre in Charleston, for instance, was widely considered one of his most impassioned, and included singing the opening refrain of “Amazing Grace.”
Thursday night, he had little of the soaring language and certainly none of the hope he expressed in Charleston. But he promised to continue hammering away at this issue for the rest of his presidency.
“Each time this happens, I’m going to bring this up,” he said. “Each time this happens, I’m going to say that we can actually do something about it.”
Tragic List: The Deadliest Mass Shootings in U.S. History
While information is still coming in, it already seems clear that the deadly massacre at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, on Thursday morning will have several victims. It thus becomes the latest in a tragic list mass shootings that have happened in the United States, at schools and elsewhere.
Below are some of the shootings in America that have claimed the most lives.
On April 16, 2007, 23-year-old Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho shot 32 people to death on the Blacksburg, Virginia, campus before killing himself. The dead included 27 students and five faculty members. Another 17 people were injured. Days after the shooting, the worst school shooting in the nation’s history, NBC News received a package from Cho that contained a video of him ranting about rich “brats” and complaining about being bullied.
Evan Vucci / AP File
On Dec. 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 28 people, including himself, his mother, 20 elementary school kids and six school staff and faculty at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Lanza suffered from extreme mental health issues that weren’t treated, and was preoccupied with violence, a report from state officials found. He also had easy access to weapons, the report said.
On Oct. 16, 1991, A 35-year-old named George Hennard crashed his pickup through Luby’s Cafeteria, a packed restaurant in Killeen, Texas. He shot and killed 23 people before shooting and killing himself. Twenty-seven others were wounded. The Texas massacre is the deadliest shooting to not happen at a school in U.S. history. According to a former roommate, Hennard “hated blacks, Hispanics, gays. He said women were snakes.”
On July 18, 1984, James Huberty, a 41-year-old former security guard who had lost his job, opened fire at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California, killing 21 employees and customers, including children. A police sniper killed him an hour after he started shooting.
On Aug. 1, 1966, former U.S. Marine Charles Joseph Whitman, 25, killed his mother and wife, then went on top of a tower at University of Texas at Austin and killed 16 others. He also wounded at least 30. Whitman had complained of physical and mental health issues before the attack. He was then shot by a police officer. An autopsy after his death revealed he had a brain tumor, but it was not clear whether that had affected his actions.
On Aug. 20, 1986, postman Patrick Henry Sherill killed 14 postal workers in Edmond, Oklahoma, and then killed himself with a shot to the head. The rampage came a week after two supervisors reprimanded him for lousy performance.
On April 20, 1999, students Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, killed 12 other students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Two dozen were injured. They then killed themselves in the school’s library. In journal entries, the high school seniors had written about a desire to imitate events such as the Oklahoma City bombing.
On Nov. 5, 2009, Mad. Nidal Malik Hasan, 39, killed 13 people and injured 32 others at Fort Hood, Texas. The massacre prompted the Army to come up with a list of 78 recommendations for Fort Hood to identify the potential for violent behavior among its soldiers. Hasan has been sentenced to death.
On April 3, 2009, in Binghamton, New York, 41-year-old Jiverly Wong, an immigrant, killed 13 people and injured four others at an immigrant services center before killing himself. President Obama called the shootings “an act of senseless violence.”
On Feb. 18, 1983, three robbers at the Wah Mee gambling club in Seattle killed 13 people. Kwan Fai Mak and Benjamin Ng were convicted of murder later that year and are serving life sentences; Wai-Chu Ng was deported to Hong Kong last year.
On July 20, 2012, 24-year-old James Holmes sprayed bullets on a midnight screening of the new Batman movie at a theater in Aurora, Colorado. In addition to the 12 killed, 58 were wounded. Defense attorneys tried unsuccessfully to argue that he was insane at the time of the attack; he was sentenced to life in prison in August.
On Sept. 16, 2013, a 34-year-old named Aaron Alexis opened fire inside the Washington Navy Yard, killing 12. The former Navy reservist died in a gun battle with police.