Friday, June 17, 2016

‘Our hearts are broken, too’: Obama visits survivors of Orlando rampage

President Obama met Thursday afternoon with relatives of people killed in the recent shooting rampage here as well as with survivors of the attack, again making a grim pilgrimage to mourn a mass killing and try to console those left behind. He also again called on lawmakers to pass stronger gun control laws, urging them to help “end the plague of violence that these weapons inflict on so many lives.”

While laying flowers at a memorial in downtown, about a mile and a half from the club where the shooting occurred four days earlier, Obama said the city was “shaken by an evil, hateful act.” Obama said that when he and Vice President Biden met with family members of the people slain on Sunday, their grief was indescribable.

“The Vice President and I told them, on behalf of the American people, that our hearts are broken, too, but we stand with you and that we are here for you, and that we are remembering those who you loved so deeply,” Obama said of the meeting.

Even as this visit — the latest in what has become a long line of trips he has made to regions rocked by catastrophic gun violence — was underway, discussions continued on Capitol Hill about holding votes on gun-control measures following a nearly 15-hour filibuster on the Senate floor. Obama said he hoped senators who had previously opposed some measures “have a change of heart,” saying that the relatives he met with on Thursday asked why such killing sprees keep happening.

The rampage early Sunday at Pulse, a gay nightclub, left 49 people dead and dozens more injured. Hours before Obama arrived, officials in Orlando said that nearly two dozen people injured in the shooting were still hospitalized, six of them in critical condition.

Three others were in “guarded” condition, while the rest were stable, according to Orlando Regional Medical Center, where many of the victims were taken. The hospital said its surgeons had performed 50 operations in the four days since the shooting, with more scheduled for Thursday.

[Senate Democrats end marathon filibuster; leaders negotiating votes on gun control measures]

“This healing process is not going to happen overnight,” Schultz told reporters on Air Force One. “It’s not going to be a quick one. That’s all the more reason why the president wanted to be there in person.”

Obama was joined on the flight by two Florida lawmakers — Sen. Marco Rubio (R) and Rep. Corrine Brown (D) — while another, Sen. Bill Nelson (D), flew down with Biden, officials said. When Obama arrived in Orlando, he shook hands with Gov. Rick Scott (R) and greeted Mayor Buddy Dyer (D), who was wearing an “Orlando United” T-shirt.

While in Orlando, Obama and Biden met with different groups, thanking law enforcement officials for how they acted in responding to the shooting and gathering with people who were working at Pulse when the gunfire began. The motorcade traveled to the Amway Center in downtown Orlando so that Obama and Biden could be with survivors and relatives of those who died, a meeting that has become all too familiar during his presidency.

“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?” Obama said Thursday. “And they pleaded that we do more to stop the carnage.”

After that gathering, Obama and Biden traveled to the memorial at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, where a wide swath of land was covered with balloons, flowers and other tributes.

An American flag embroidered with the names of those killed sat among the photos of the dead, pinwheels and other mementos that packed the ground, the balloons bobbing in the afternoon breeze. One arrangement was from Dyer and city hall staff. Many signs around the memorial read “Orlando strong,” while one, apparently written by a child, said, “Never lose hope, love and compassion.”

Obama and Biden laid flowers, one for each person killed in the rampage, and knelt next to the public remembrances of those who died.

In remarks at the memorial, Obama called the shooting a lone-wolf attack. But he also invoked the mass killings in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., and again said these rampages showed why stronger gun control laws were needed.

“Those who were killed and injured here were gunned down by a single killer with a powerful assault weapon,” Obama 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. Now another 49 innocent people are dead. Another 53 are injured. Some are still fighting for their lives.”

He continued: “We can’t anticipate or catch every single deranged person … but we can do something about the amount of damage that they do.”

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