Biden voices grief and anger at shooting: ‘I am sick and tired of it’

Photo for The Washington Post by Oliver Contreras
A White House staffer lowers the American flag to half-staff on May 24, 2022, in Washington, D.C, following the elementary school shooting in Texas.

President Joe Biden, in remarks that intermingled despair and anger, attempted to shame Congress on gun control Tuesday while openly questioning why the country he now leads has been incapable of coming up with an antidote to the mass shootings that show no signs of abating.

A father who has lost two of his own children, a man who has delivered perhaps more eulogies than any living politician, and a president who is confronting numerous challenges was forced, once again, to try to console a country reeling from tragedy.

“Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen? Where in God’s name is our backbone?” he said during a seven-minute address from the Roosevelt Room at the White House after news of the mass killing at a school in Uvalde, Texas. “It’s time to turn this pain into action.”

Biden delivered the remarks less than two hours after returning from Asia and just seven days after he last spoke about a mass shooting that had upended America. It was the second time in the course of 10 days that an 18-year-old in body armor carried a rifle into a building full of unsuspecting people, interrupting everyday life for everyday Americans with terror, mayhem and bloodshed.

For some Democrats and activists, it was a moment of expletive-filled frustration, of helplessness turning to rage. It was a moment of demanding change, of attacking Republicans who boast of their love of guns, of pointing to the children that, they say, Congress is failing.

For Biden, and for the nation as a whole, the massacre in Uvalde was a painful echo of the 2012 shooting in Newton, Conn., that killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, bookends to a decade filled with mass shootings.

“As a nation, we have to ask: When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” Biden asked, his voice rising. “When in God’s name do we do what we all know in our gut needs to be done?” He added, “I am sick and tired of it. We have to act. And don’t tell me we can’t have an impact on this carnage.”

Mass shootings have touched nearly every facet of American life, from country music concerts to suburban movie theaters, from churches and schools to local Walmarts and neighborhood grocery stores.

Several Republicans said Tuesday that they wanted to wait for more information about the shooting before discussing potential action. But many Democrats escalated their rhetoric, bemoaning the young age of the victims and attempting to shake free of the usual responses.

“I am here on this floor to beg, to literally get down on my hands and knees and beg my colleagues: Find a path forward here,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who once held a 15-hour filibuster on the Senate floor to push for stricter gun laws, said during a Senate floor speech. “Work with us to find a way to pass laws that make this less likely.”

Vice President Harris deviated from her scheduled remarks at an evening gala for the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies. “I would normally say in a moment like this — we would all say, naturally, that our hearts break. But our hearts keep getting broken,” she said. “And yet it keeps happening.”

“Enough is enough. Enough is enough,” Harris added. “As a nation, we have to have the courage to take action.”

Biden learned of the shooting during a flight back from a five-day trip to Seoul and Tokyo. He quickly signed a proclamation to have federal flags flown at half-staff. He spoke with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, R, while flying on Air Force One, and his staff scrambled to have him deliver a rare prime-time address.

Many lawmakers from both parties expressed horror and sadness immediately after the shooting.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., said on Twitter that he was “completely sickened and heartbroken,” that he was “lifting up in prayer” for the community and that there had “been too many of these shootings.” Cruz, along with former president Donald Trump and Abbott, is scheduled to speak Friday at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Houston, about 275 miles from Uvalde.

Critics of Cruz tweeted angrily back at him, including Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who wrote, “Just to be clear f— you @tedcruz you f—ing baby killer.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., encapsulated the shock and anger felt by Democrats toward their Republican colleagues, noting that legislation passed in the House last year had been languishing in the Senate.

“How many more times will Senate Republicans express outrage at horrific shootings like the one today in Uvalde, Texas, and then block meaningful, bipartisan background-check legislation supported by nine out of ten Americans and most responsible gun owners?” he said in a statement. “How many more times?”

House Democrats passed two bills in March 2021. One would have eliminated a provision that allows a gun sale to proceed if a background check cannot be completed after three days. The “Charleston loophole” legislation, named after the 2015 massacre in South Carolina, would have extended the review period to 20 days.

A separate bill would have required background checks to close the “gun show loophole,” which allows buyers to forgo a review if they buy a gun at a gun show or online.

Both bills passed with overwhelming Democratic support but were never taken up in a 50-50 Senate, where 10 Republicans would be needed to send the legislation to the president’s desk.

On Twitter, some resurrected a tweet from Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Tex., who represents Uvalde, in which the congressman boasted about voting against the two bills and noted that he remains “a proud supporter of the Second Amendment and will do everything I can to oppose gun grabs from the far Left.”

Some lawmakers noted that the country was still reeling from an attack on a Black community in Buffalo a little over a week ago that killed 10 people at a supermarket. After that racially motivated attack, Democrats privately acknowledged that any gun reform push would probably stall in the Senate.

Instead, they set their sights on fast-tracking a domestic terrorism bill that would expand the ability of federal agencies to track and analyze any domestic terror activity, including white-supremacy groups. After making changes to appease liberals concerned the power could be abused, the House passed the legislation Wednesday. The legislation will be before the Senate on Thursday, but it’s unlikely it will gain the support of 10 Republicans necessary to overcome a filibuster.

While partisan recriminations have become routine after mass shootings — as Democrats urge more gun control and Republicans accuse them of politicizing tragedy — Tuesday’s killing of so many children seemed to raise the back-and-forth to a new pitch.

“I’m sickened and angry. I’m furious that yet ANOTHER senseless school shooting has left at least 15 families without their loved ones — including 14 precious, innocent children and a dedicated educator — just days after 10 people were murdered in Buffalo,” Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., tweeted after the initial casualty report, before the known death toll rose. “To my colleagues across the aisle: we’ve had enough of your mere thoughts and prayers. We need action NOW.”

In his remarks, Biden said the shooting had made him reflect on why the United States has been uniquely incapable of stopping mass shootings.

“What struck me on that 17-hour flight, what struck me was these kinds of mass shootings rarely happen anywhere else in the world. Why?” he said. “They have mental health problems. They have domestic disputes in other countries. They have people who are lost. But these kinds of mass shootings never happen in other countries like in America.”

Biden began his remarks with a shaky voice and reddened eyes.

“Another massacre at a Texas elementary school. Beautiful, innocent second-, third-, fourth-graders.” he said, before later concluding: “God bless the loss of innocent life on this sad day. May the Lord be near to the brokenhearted and save those crushed in spirit. Because they’re going to need a lot.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Oliver Contreras
President Joe Biden speaks to the nation about the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, from the White House on May 24, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

It was just a week earlier that he was visiting with grieving families in Buffalo, dropping flowers at a makeshift memorial and consoling traumatized police officers.

The shooting also marked the latest swerve in Biden’s presidency, forcing him to grapple with an issue on which he has long focused but which suddenly had a renewed resonance.

Responding to gun violence has in some ways been a through-line of Biden’s career. On the campaign trail, he often bragged about his purported success in taking on the National Rifle Association. He helped pass the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993 and an assault weapons ban in 1994.

But the latter bill included a 10-year “sunset” clause, expiring in 2004 after Congress did not renew it. In years since, Biden’s efforts toward change have been repeatedly rebuffed.

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012, Biden took the lead in attempting to mobilize a legislative response that was ultimately stymied.

In the aftermath of the shootings in Parkland, Fla., in 2018 — which left 14 students and three educators dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — Biden met with the families of victims. And he has developed friendships through grief with many of the victims of gun violence, offering his own advice on how to channel the loss into something that could feel productive.

Since entering the White House, he has announced four packages of executive actions related to gun control, including cracking down on “ghost guns” and promoting the safe storage of firearms.

When he met with mourning families in Buffalo, Biden told them that change would come, but perhaps not quickly. When he spoke publicly, he teared up as he described one man who had stopped by the supermarket to buy a birthday cake for his 3-year-old son, who would now have to celebrate birthdays without a father.

But when he left, just before boarding Air Force One, he conceded there were few executive actions he had left to take. And while he said, “I’m not going to give up trying,” the odds of convincing Congress to act were “very difficult.”

He reiterated his call for Congress to enact gun-control measures, including an assault weapons ban.

“Look, I’m not naive,” Biden said that day. “I know tragedy will come again.”

What he didn’t know is that it would come again just seven days later.

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The Washington Post’s Marianna Sotomayor and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.