Emotional, Defiant President Obama Pays Tribute to His Friends Who Died in 'Heartbreaking' Charleston Massacre

The president says he and Mrs. Obama knew several members of Emanuel AME, including the murdered pastor

Photo: Susan Walsh/AP

President Obama made an unusually personal – and defiant – statement Thursday on the tragic shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Calling the church “Mother Emanuel,” the president said he and First Lady Michelle Obama knew several members of the church, including their pastor, Clementa Pinckney, who was murdered Wednesday night with eight others when suspect Dylann Storm Roof allegedly opened fire on a prayer meeting inside the historic black church.

“To say our thoughts and prayers are with them doesn’t say enough to convey the heartache, the sadness and the anger that we feel,” Obama said.

“Any death of this sort is a tragedy. Any shooting involving multiple victims is a tragedy. But there’s something particularly heartbreaking about the death happening in a place in which we seek solace, and we seek peace, in a place of worship.”

At the president’s side in the White House Press Briefing Room, Vice President Joe Biden hung his head mournfully in his first public appearance since the June 6 funeral of his eldest child, Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer.

Biden later said in a statement that he had just seen Pinckney less than a year ago. “Our hearts ache with sorrow with the entire Emanuel AME Church family as they seek solace and comfort in the shadow of a gunman s act of pure evil and hatred,” Biden said. “Our love and prayers are with them … We have no doubt the coward who committed this heinous act will be brought to justice. But as a nation we must confront the ravages of gun violence and the stain of hatred that continues to be visited on our streets, in our schools, in our houses of worship, and in our communities.”

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said the Obamas first got to know Pinckney in 2007, when the preacher was one of then-Senator Obama’s early supporters. “They formed a bond…that bond was strong enough to endure all the way until today,” Schultz said.

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On Thursday, it was as if Obama had hit his breaking point with grief, with so many mass shootings – including the 2011 assassination attempt on Rep. Gabby Giffords and the 2012 Newtown school shooting, with too many others since then – mourned during his presidency.

“I’ve had to make statements like this too many times,” Obama said, an angry edge to his voice in what CBS News correspondent Mark Knoller, unofficial archivist of the White House press corps, counts as at least Obama’s 14th statement on shooting attacks.

Saying he felt somewhat limited in what he could say about the unfolding investigation in Charleston, Obama added:

“I don’t have to be constrained about the emotions. Once again, innocent people were killed, in part, because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun. Let’s be clear: At some point, we, as a country, will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence doesn’t happen in other countries … with this kind of frequency.”

Alluding to the explosive (in this country) question of gun controls, Obama went on:

“It is in our power to do something about it. I say that, recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it’d 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.”

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