WASHINGTON — Giving voice to intense heartache, anger and sadness, President Barack Obama said Thursday the South Carolina church shooting that left nine people dead shows the need for a national reckoning on gun violence.
Obama, who knew the pastor killed in the Charleston attack, said he has been called upon too often to mourn the deaths of innocents killed by those "who had no trouble getting their hands on a gun."
"Now is the time for mourning and for healing," the president said. "But let's be clear. At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it."
Those killed in Wednesday night's shooting by a white man at the historic black Emanuel AME church included pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama knew Pinckney and the several other members of the church. The president referred fondly to "Mother Emanuel" as more than a church, calling it "a sacred place in the history of Charleston and in the history of America."
And while Obama said that because the shooting is under investigation, he was constrained from talking about details of the case, he added with clear frustration and anger, "I don't need to be constrained about the emotions that tragedies like this raise."
"I've had to make statements like this too many times," the president said.
The president acknowledged there is scant sentiment within the Republican-controlled Congress for stricter gun controls, saying he recognizes "the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now." A federal universal background bill couldn't muster the 60 votes necessary even in a Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate in the months after the 2012 shooting rampage in Newtown, Connecticut.
But Obama held out hope for an eventual shift in attitudes.
"At some point it's going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively," he said.
Obama said the shooting in a black church also raised questions "about a dark part of our history" of racism, but he said the broad-based outpouring of grief at the tragedy shows "the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome."
Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, said that he and Biden had spoken with Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley and other local leaders to express their condolences.