By Kevin Liptak
CNN White House Producer
President Barack Obama said Thursday that grief-filled parents in Orlando pleaded with him to take steps preventing the kind of gun violence that took their children. But he acknowledged, exasperatedly, that he could offer them few promises.
“Our politics have conspired to make it as easy as possible for a terrorist or even just a disturbed individual to buy extraordinarily powerful weapons, and they can do so legally,” Obama said after meeting with families who lost loved ones in the Orlando nightclub shooting that took place Sunday.
“I held and hugged grieving family members and parents and they asked, ‘Why does this keep happening?’ And they pleaded that we do more to stop the carnage,” Obama said. “They don’t care about the politics. Neither do I.”
The role of consoler in chief was a repeat assignment for Obama, was has now traveled to 10 American cities — including four in the last year — scarred by mass shooting events. In Orlando, he met at a downtown arena with both families of victims and survivors of the terrorist attack, many of whom suffered serious injuries but emerged from the massacre alive.
Prior to their meeting with families and survivors, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden spoke to local law enforcement officials to thank them for their actions in responding to the attack at Pulse nightclub, according to the White House.
Afterward, the President and Vice President met with the owners and staff of Pulse who were working when the attack occurred. Two members of the staff were killed.
The President met with the groups in private. But he did emerge afterward to lay a bouquet composed of 49 roses, one for each of the attack’s victims.
It was a familiar tableau for Obama, who has said the moments spent consoling families in mourning have been some of the most wrenching of his presidency.
In his remarks in Orlando, however, Obama offered little solace to Americans who fear similar attacks could be carried out in their own communities.
“We can’t anticipate or catch every single deranged person that may wish to do harm to his neighbors or his friends or co-workers or strangers,” Obama said. “Unfortunately, our politics have conspired to make it as easy as possible for a terrorist or just a disturbed individual like those in Aurora and Newtown to buy extraordinarily powerful weapons and they can do so legally.”
Obama said politicians who oppose strengthen gun control laws should meet with families of gun violence victims.
“Those who defend the easy accessibility of assault weapons should meet these families,” Obama said.
Obama said the motives of the Orlando shooter, U.S.-born Muslim Omar Mateen, were different than the killers who shot up Sandy Hook Elementary School and a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.
“But the instruments of death were so similar,” he said.
The Orlando slaughter is unique from previous mass shootings both in the scale of the tragedy — the death toll of 49 makes it the worst mass shooting in U.S. history — and the killer’s ties to global terror. Mateen pledged allegiance to ISIS but didn’t appear to be directed by the organization, according to U.S. officials.
Obama said that even as his military and intelligence agencies wage battle against ISIS, additional changes are required to secure the homeland.
“If you have lone wolf attacks like this, hatched in the minds of a disturbed person, then we’re going to have to take different steps in order to prevent something like this from happening,” Obama said.
Sunday’s attack targeted a gay nightclub, with many of the victims gay and Latino. That has further escalated the debate following the shooting, which struck on a series of charged political and cultural flash-points of Obama-era America.
Obama said on Thursday the crime was an “attack on the LGBT community,” using an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
And he called for a collective affirmation of basic U.S. values in the wake of the attack.
“If there was ever a moment for all of us to reflect and reaffirm our most basic beliefs that everybody counts and everybody has dignity, now’s the time,” he said. “It’s a good time for all of to us reflect on how we treat each other and to insist on respect and equality for every human being.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a former 2016 GOP presidential candidate, accompanied Obama on his flight to Orlando in a demonstration of the President’s interest to “show solidarity,” according to the White House. Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, greeted Obama at airport, as did several other local officials. Obama called the governor Wednesday.
When Obama arrived, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer presented him with a black T-shirt emblazoned with a rainbow-colored heart and the words #OrlandoUnited.
Hours later, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump said he had watched Obama and criticized him at his rally in Dallas, Texas.
“We have tragedy after tragedy, and it’s a tough situation. But he’s largely, to a large extent, he’s blaming guns,” Trump said. “And I’m going to save your Second Amendment, folks.”
Back in Washington, however, lawmakers paused in efforts to pass gun control legislation, something the Obama administration has backed and the President spoke to in the wake of the Orlando shooting.
A senior Democratic aide told CNN that votes will most likely happen next week, and they are looking at two Democratic amendments concerning the terror watch list and background checks as well as two GOP amendments. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told CNN that the Senate will hold a series of votes on gun amendments Monday.
Hours before Obama’s plane touched down in Orlando, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy ended his high profile, 14-hour filibuster calling for votes on gun control legislation. Republican leaders in Congress have stood by their stance that gun control is not the key to fighting homegrown terror threats, but their party’s presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday that he planned to meet with the NRA to discuss “not allowing people on the terrorist watch list, or the no fly list, to buy guns.”
On Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan pushed back against the Democrats’ efforts on guns, saying of possible changes to the way the terror watch list works that, “if we do this wrong, like the President is proposing, we can actually blow our ongoing terrorist investigations. So, we want to get this right, so that we don’t undermine terrorist investigations.”
And one senior Republican, Arizona Sen. John McCain, pointed to Middle East policy as opposed to gun control as driving the threat that culminated in the Orlando shooting.
“Barack Obama is directly responsible for it because when he pulled everybody out of Iraq, al Qaeda went to Syria, became ISIS, and ISIS is what it is today thanks to Barack Obama’s failures — utter failures,” McCain told reporters on Capitol Hill. “So the responsibility for it lies with President Barack Obama and his failed policies.”
McCain said later he “misspoke,” using a statement to clarify that it was not the President himself who was “personally responsible,” but his “security decisions.”
CNN’s Betsy Klein, Deirdre Walsh and Theodore Schleifer contributed to this report.