A mournful President Barack Obama said the nation is failing to keep its children safe and gave words of solace to the heartbroken community of Newtown, telling a weeping audience Sunday: "I come to offer the love and prayers of a nation."
"I can only hope it helps to know you are not alone in your grief. Our world too has been torn apart," the president said at an interfaith service, after he met with families and first responders. "All across this land of ours, we have wept with you, pulled our children tight."
Obama said the killing of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School was the fourth mass shooting since he has taken office. The president offered condolences and a challenge to the nation, saying that in the coming weeks he will use the power of his office to engage in an effort at preventing more senseless violence.
"These tragedies must end," said Obama. "And to end them, we must change."
Obama said that while the causes of such violence are complex, a solution must be found.
"What choice do we have?" Obama said on a stark stage that held only a small table covered with a black cloth, candles and the presidential podium. "Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?"
The president first met privately with families of the victims and with the emergency personnel who responded to the shooting. Police and firefighters got hugs and standing ovations when they entered for the public vigil, as did Obama.
As Obama read some of the names of victims early in his remarks, sobs resonated throughout the hall. He closed by slowly reading the first names of each of the 20 children.
"God has called them all home," he said. "For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on and make our country worthy of their memory."
Inside the room, children held stuffed teddy bears and dogs. The smallest kids sat on their parents' laps.
There were tears and hugs, but also smiles and squeezed arms. Mixed with disbelief was a sense of a community reacquainting itself all at once.
One man said it was less mournful, more familial. Some kids chatted easily with their friends. The adults embraced each other in support.
"We needed this," said the Rev. Matt Crebbin, senior minister of the Newtown Congregational Church. "We need to be together here in this room. ... We needed to be together to show that we are together and united."