President Barack Obama expressed sorrow for the victims of a gun-related tragedy for the 14th time during his tenure in the White House on Thursday. However, this instance was markedly different. It was the first time the president personally knew one of the people slain.
“Michelle and I know several members of Emanuel AME Church. We knew their pastor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who, along with eight others, gathered in prayer and fellowship and was murdered last night. And to say our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families, and their community doesn’t say enough to convey the heartache and the sadness and the anger that we feel,” Obama said.
The president said the Wednesday shooting deaths of nine people at the historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, rekindled “a dark part of our history.” He also bluntly tied the massacre to the proliferation of guns in the U.S., saying his time in office has been marked by too many tragedies caused by firearms.
“I’ve had to make statements like this too many times,” Obama said in a televised statement at the White House, Vice President Joe Biden standing by his side.
“We do know that, once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun,” Obama 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.”
Shortly before the president spoke, a suspect in the killings, 21-year old Dylann Roof, was arrested in Shelby, North Carolina, about 250 miles away from the crime scene.
Besides Pinckey, the victims included an 87-year-old parishioner and a 26-year-old recent college graduate.
Storm is suspected of opening fire Wednesday during a Bible study and prayer at the church. Storm allegedly joined the prayer group, which meets weekly, asked for the pastor and sat next to him for nearly an hour before shooting.
Obama said it was “particularly heartbreaking” that the massacre occurred “in a place where we seek solace and a place where we seek peace, a place of worship.”
The church, known as Mother Emanuel, is the oldest such congregation in the South, and it is famous for the historic role it has played in moments of racial strife.
“Mother Emanuel is, in fact, more than a church,” Obama said. “This is a place of worship that was founded by African-Americans seeking liberty. This is a church that was burned to the ground because its worshipers worked to end slavery. … This is a sacred place in the history of Charleston and in the history of America.”
Benjy Sarlin, Amanda Sakuma and Benjamin Landy contributed reporting.