On the day of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school, the president grieved like any father would.
On December 14, 2012, in the quiet community of Newtown, Connecticut, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot his mother, then drove to Sandy Hook elementary school, where he gunned down 26 people, 20 of them 6- and 7-year-old children. Like many around the country, President Obama had a visceral response to the massacre; the day is widely acknowledged by the president and his inner circle as the worst of his eight years in office.
[The morning] started like any other. It was a Friday and we got an email from the Situation Room saying there [was] a possible school shooting. And then cable news started to cover it and more information came in, more rumors.
There were holiday parties going on and people over at the White House residence area partying and having a nice time and you’re getting this terrible information.
I was in the Oval Office when the president found out that 20 children and six adults had died. And I remember asking, Could you repeat the number? Because I couldn't absorb 20 children. Then I found out they were 6 and 7 years of age. It was almost as if I couldn't take it in.
At the time, Jon Favreau [Obama’s head speech writer] and I shared an office in the West Wing. The president had just been reelected so he was working on the Inaugural Address. There were fiscal cliffs and tax standoffs and all sorts of partisan stuff that suddenly seemed really small. So we quickly banged out a statement together and took it up to the Oval Office.
The president called me up to get the edits and when I walked into the Oval, he didn't even look up at me because he was so upset. That was probably the most upset I'd seen him.
He crossed out a couple of paragraphs that he said were too raw. He had tears in his eyes. And he said, “I don't know if I'll be able to get through this.”
A memorial service was scheduled for Sunday, December 16, and as the day approached, the president’s speech writers struggled with how to verbalize the unspeakable.
I found out I had about 48 hours to turn around the eulogy. And around 3 am that night I started crying because how do you eulogize 20 6-year-old children?
When the shooting in Aurora [Colorado] happened, the president and I were in Florida for an event and he said, “You don’t have kids yet, but there’s a saying, ‘Having kids is like walking around with your heart outside your chest.’ ” I remembered that moment and we used that in his Sandy Hook remarks.
Just two days later, the president went to Newtown. It was a rainy day so he couldn’t take a helicopter. We had to drive for an hour and 10 minutes. I remember that like it was yesterday. In the car, he looked at his remarks and he turned them over and he said, “That’s not what I want to say,” and he pulled out a yellow pad of paper and he started to write.
I knew one thing I needed to do was to name the children, to acknowledge them and make sure that people understood that this wasn’t an abstraction, that these were [kids] just like Malia or Sasha or anybody else’s kids that would hug you and be tucked in at night and read stories to. The notion that we as a society couldn’t protect them, not from a natural disaster but from something like this…
I remember being conscious of my breathing because I didn't want to do anything to disturb him. And he wrote solidly for an hour and 10 minutes straight. When we got out of the car he handed his remarks to one of his aides and…delivered one of the most powerful speeches I've heard him give.
President Obama got there and a few of us went down to brief him. He was clearly emotional and devastated by what had happened, but he knew that as the president of the United States it was his responsibility to be there for people in their time of need. So we kind of walked through the families that he would see. He just dove in and just gave every ounce of what he could give to these people who were going through this unimaginable loss.
He spent a couple hours meeting with all the families and a lot of kids who were too young to fully understand what had happened other than that their brother and sister were gone.
He spent as much time as they wanted, with him, and they showed him photographs of their loved ones and told their stories about their children. He was really the consoler in chief that day.
Most of the families brought their holiday card, so they could show the president their deceased son or daughter.
I remember the sheer number of people affected. You had all of those students and teachers who were lost, but each one of them had multiple family members who were directly impacted. Three, four, five, some of them had 10 or 15 people there...And every single one, the president greeted. He would bring them in for a big hug. He’d put his hands on their shoulder and look 'em in their eyes. Some of the younger siblings who were just too young to understand what was going on, he’d try to get them to laugh a little bit or hand them a box of White House M&Ms from his pocket. [The president] just gave whatever he could in that time.
That’s not the only time I’ve had to comfort families who’ve lost loved ones. Unfortunately it’s happened too often. But these were 6-year-olds and it wasn’t just the parents but in many cases you had siblings who were 10, 8 who had learned that their younger brother or sister had been killed. It’s the only time I ever saw Secret Service cry at an event. It was brutal.
I was sitting next to a man during the service and he didn't have anyone with him and he started to cry and I reached across to hold his hand. He didn’t know me. I was a total stranger but I was desperate to be able to provide comfort at a time when there was no possible way to provide comfort.
That was the first time I ever saw the president cry. At the end of the day, he’s a dad, a father. When he spoke at Newtown, he said, very famously, “By any measure, we are failing these children”.
I went to Sandy Hook about four or five days after the shooting to thank some first responders. In one of the classrooms, there were these little posters kids had put up that said, What I Want to Accomplish this Year—I want to learn how to spell, I want to learn how to read, I want to learn how to do math. This was the place where these kids had been gunned down. There were tufts of carpet kind of pulled up, and I asked one of the crime scene search officers and he said, “That’s where the bullets hit.” And as I walked out, I was thanking the crime scene search officers and the first responders…and these grizzled 20, 30-year veterans were crying. And I thought, boy, this is finally going to move this country.
Though U.S. public opinion had been fairly evenly divided for years between those who advocated for gun control and those who favored the rights of gun owners, after the Sandy Hook shooting, there was a shift: A Pew Research Center poll taken a week after Newtown found that 49 percent of Americans favored restricting gun ownership while only 42 percent were more concerned with gun owners’ rights.
The president hadn't even been re-inaugurated, but he decided to use his political capital right after reelection to try to do something about guns.
He was always a strong supporter of gun control, but [Sandy Hook] really intensified his belief that we needed to once again march up the hill and try and do something.
We plotted our strategy, and made the determination that the vice president and I would lead the effort along with Janet Napolitano to try to really come up with common sense gun safety proposals.
In those first couple months, we [were] trying to do something about guns along with the vice president and the families of Newtown who found courage fast. One couple, Francine and David Wheeler, recorded the Weekly Address in lieu of the president and it was just one of the most painful things I could possibly imagine.
I think the president is generally a cool person, unflappable. But he’s not a person without emotion and he was as affected by Sandy Hook as I was. It was something that wore him down over time and took off that level of calm and reserve. You could see how he was really feeling about this issue and how sincerely he felt a need for change.
On April 17, 2013, a bipartisan measure that would have required expanded background checks for would-be gun owners and banned the sale of some military-type semi-automatic weapons failed to pass the then-Democratically-controlled Senate, in a 54 to 46 vote.
When gun control failed, that was a very personal issue for the president. He had gotten close to many of the victims’ families. If Washington could agree on nothing else, it seemed as if doing something in the aftermath of Newtown, like instant background checks, should be possible.
An overwhelming majority of Americans felt that things like background checks…might save a few lives; that if a mad man walks into a school intent on doing harm, fewer children might die if he doesn’t have a semi-automatic weapon with magazines that can just deliver a stunning amount of bullets in a short span of time. The fact that we couldn’t even get something as basic as that through the Senate was heartbreaking.
So why didn’t it work? The NRA is probably the most effective, single-issue advocacy organization in the world. They were able to convince enough Republicans that they would lose in the primaries if they supported it.
One of his biggest disappointments…was Congress’ unwillingness to listen not just to the president but to 90 percent of the American people who believed what we were trying to do made sense.
This isn’t a case where you could say, if only we had done X, Y, or Z differently, we would’ve passed something. It just wasn’t going to happen. And I don’t know what it’s going to take because hopefully we’re not going to have another incident as bad as what happened in Newtown.
I've seen the president genuinely angry twice. Once was when he found out healthcare.gov wasn't working. The other was when background checks failed in the Senate. And I mean angry, like deeply, deeply disturbed by it. I think he used the word disgusted.
After Sandy Hook, after these 6-year-olds had been killed, these little angels, you’d think that would certainly be something that would move the nation. [The legislation] certainly didn’t go as far as I thought we needed to go, but it seemed like a reasonable first step. And to see even that get shot down, that was extremely disheartening.
At the end of the day, the reason we didn’t make progress on gun safety wasn’t because of substance. It was because of raw politics and money and influence.
How much do we have to endure as a nation before we do that which we are capable of doing?
It sounds harsh, [but] this doesn’t happen in other nations. Other nations make public policy choices around guns, and common sense gun control. My wife is from Australia. This doesn’t happen in Australia, it doesn’t happen in England, it doesn’t happen in Japan or Canada. And the fact that…we allowed this to happen, this devastation to families and communities…and allow parents to bury their kids, it’s devastating.
For all the president’s idealism, he’s clear eyed about the Congress he has and the political environment he’s in. And he pushes really hard to make progress where he can but he knows that can only go so far.
I give us close to an F on gun control. Have we fundamentally made the nation safer? We absolutely failed there.
It’s probably the closest I’ve come to being cynical during the course of my presidency…when we saw that we couldn’t get the system to move in a smarter direction. But we’ve stayed at it.
He’ll keep fighting for gun safety and he’ll do it long after he leaves office. But he’ll try to find other ways around it.
Frankly, if the American people had the ability to take that tour with me on that day, even the gun lobby would not have been able to stop reform.