President Obama emerged for a brief statement on the Charleston church shooting today, stressing that “this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries” and “we as a country will have to reckon with the fact.”
“It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency,” he said in the White House briefing room with Vice President Joe Biden at his side.
Nine people, including a South Carolina state senator, were murdered at the historic Emanuel AME Church during a Bible study last night. The suspect, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, was captured today in North Carolina.
Obama said he knew the slain pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney. “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,” he said.
“Any death of this sort is a tragedy. Any shooting involving multiple victims is a tragedy. There is something particularly heartbreaking about the death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place of worship.”
The president noted the church’s “sacred” history, including how it was once burned to the ground in the pre-Civil War era because it was a base for the anti-slavery movement.
Obama promised “more of the Bureau’s best” would be joining FBI agents already on the scene in Charleston.
“Until the investigation is complete, I’m necessarily constrained in terms of talking about the details of the case. But I don’t need to be constrained about the emotions that tragedies like this raise,” he said. “I’ve had to make statements like this too many times. Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times. We don’t have all the facts, but 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.”
“Now is the time for mourning and for healing. 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.”
Obama said he recognized “the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now.”
“But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And 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. “The fact that this took place in a black church obviously also raises questions about a dark part of our history. This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked. And we know that hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals.”
“The good news is I am confident that the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today, from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome.”
After his statement, Obama left to fly to Los Angeles for a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.
The suspect’s uncle told Reuters that Roof recently received a .45 caliber handgun as a birthday present.
Sylvia Johnson, a cousin of Pinckney, told NBC that a survivor told her the gunman sat next to the pastor for the Bible study, and said before opening fire, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
Roof’s prior arrests were for trespassing and drug possession.