NEWTOWN, Conn. — A mournful President Barack Obama said Sunday that the United States is failing to keep its children safe, pledging that change must come after an elementary-school massacre left 20 children dead.
“What choice do we have?” Obama said. “Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?”
In a vigil for the fallen, in a moment of grief that spread around the world, Obama conceded that none of his words would match the sorrow.
But he declared to the community of Newtown, site of the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history: “You are not alone.”
For Obama, ending his fourth year in office, it was another sorrowful visit to another community in disbelief. It is the job of the president to be there, to listen and console, to offer help even when the only thing within his grasp is a hug.
The massacre of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary on Friday elicited horror around the world, soul-searching in the United States, fresh political debate about gun control and questions about the incomprehensible — what drove the suspect to act.
Privately, Obama told Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy that Friday was the most difficult day of his presidency.
Authorities said Sunday that the gunman in the shooting rampage was carrying an arsenal of hundreds of rounds of especially deadly ammunition — enough to kill just about every student in the school if given enough time, raising the chilling possibility that the bloodbath could have been far worse.
Adam Lanza shot himself in the head just as he heard police drawing near to the classroom where he was slaughtering helpless children, but he had more ammunition at the ready in the form of multiple, high-capacity clips each capable of holding 30 bullets.
The disclosure on Sunday sent shudders throughout this picturesque community in the northeastern U.S. as grieving families sought to comfort each other during church services devoted to impossible questions like that of a 6-year-old girl who asked her mother: “The little children, are they with the angels?”
With so much grieving left to do, many of Newtown’s 27,000 people wondered whether life could ever return to normal. And as the workweek was set to begin, parents weighed whether to send their own children back to school.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy said the shooter decided to kill himself when he heard police closing in about 10 minutes into the attack.
“We surmise that it was during the second classroom episode that he heard responders coming and apparently at that, decided to take his own life,” Malloy said on ABC television’s “This Week.”
Authorities said they found hundreds of unused bullets at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, which enrolled about 450 students in kindergarten through fourth grade.
“There was a lot of ammo, a lot of clips,” said state police Lt. Paul Vance. “Certainly a lot of lives were potentially saved.”
The chief medical examiner has said the ammunition was the type designed to break up inside a victim’s body and inflict the maximum amount of damage, tearing apart bone and tissue.
Newtown officials couldn’t say whether Sandy Hook Elementary School would ever reopen. The school district was considering sending surviving students to an empty school in nearby Monroe. But for many parents, it was much too soon to contemplate resuming school-day routines.
“We’re just now getting ready to talk to our son about who was killed,” said Robert Licata, the father of a boy who was at the school during the shooting but escaped harm. “He’s not even there yet.”
Jim Agostine, superintendent of schools in nearby Monroe, said plans were being made for students from Sandy Hook to attend classes in his town this week.
The road ahead for Newtown was clouded with grief.
“I feel like we have to get back to normal, but I don’t know if there is normal anymore,” said Kim Camputo, mother of two children, ages 5 and 10, who attend a different school. “I’ll definitely be dropping them off and picking them up myself for a while.”
Also Sunday, a Connecticut official said the gunman’s 52-year-old mother, Nancy Lanza, was found dead in her pyjamas in bed in the home they shared, shot four times in the head with a .22-calibre rifle. The killer then went to the school Friday morning with guns he took from his mother, got inside by breaking a window and began blasting his way through the building.
All the victims at the school were shot with the rifle, at least some of them up close, and all were apparently shot more than once, Chief Medical Examiner Dr. H. Wayne Carver said. There were as many as 11 shots on the bodies he examined. Lanza died of a gunshot wound to the head from a 10 mm gun, said the same official who described the scene at the mother’s house.
Amid the confusion and sorrow, stories of heroism emerged, including an account of the principal Dawn Hochsprung, 47, and the school psychologist, Mary Sherlach, 56, rushing toward Lanza in an attempt to stop him. Both died.
There was also 27-year-old teacher Victoria Soto, whose name has been invoked as a portrait of selflessness. Investigators told relatives she was killed while shielding her first-graders from danger. She reportedly hid some students in a bathroom or closet, ensuring they were safe, a cousin, Jim Wiltsie, told ABC News.
“She put those children first. That’s all she ever talked about,” a friend, Andrea Crowell, told The Associated Press. “She wanted to do her best for them, to teach them something new every day.”
Federal agents have concluded that Lanza visited an area shooting range, but they do not know whether he actually practiced shooting there.
Ginger Colburn, a spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, would not identify the range or say how recently he was there.
Agents also determined that Lanza’s mother visited shooting ranges several times, but it’s still not clear whether she brought her son to the range or whether he ever fired a weapon there, Colburn said.
Investigators have offered no motive for the shooting, and police have found no letters or diaries that could shed light on it.
Newtown police Lt. George Sinko said he “would find it very difficult” for students to return to the same school where they came so close to death.
But, he added, “We want to keep these kids together. They need to support each other.”
Jennifer Waters, who at 6 is the same age as many of the dead children but attends another school, came to Mass at Saint Rose of Lima Roman Catholic church with lots of questions.
“The little children — are they with the angels?” she asked her mother.
Joan Waters assured her daughter that they were, then hushed the child as services continued with boxes of tissues placed in each pew and window sill.
An overflow crowd of more than 800 people packed the church where eight children will be buried this week. Lanza and his mother also attended the church. Spokesman Brian Wallace said the diocese has yet to be asked to provide funerals for either.
In his homily, the Rev. Jerald Doyle tried to answer the question of how parishioners could find joy in a holiday season with so much sorrow.
“You won’t remember what I say, and it will become unimportant,” he said. “But you will really hear deep down that word that will finally and ultimately bring peace and joy. That is the word by which we live. That is the word by which we hope. That is the word by which we love.”
At a later Mass at St. Rose of Lima, the priest stopped midway through the service and told worshippers to leave, because someone had phoned in a threat. Police searched the church and the rectory but found nothing dangerous.
The rifle used was a Bushmaster .223-calibre, a civilian version of the military’s M-16 and a model commonly seen at marksmanship competitions. It’s similar to the weapon used in the 2002 sniper killings in the Washington, D.C., area and in a recent shopping mall shooting in Oregon.
Versions of the AR-15 were outlawed in the United States under the 1994 assault weapons ban. That law expired in 2004, and Congress, in a nod to the political clout of the gun-rights lobby, did not renew it.
Associated Press writers John Christoffersen and Michael Melia in Newtown, David Collins in Hartford and Brian Skoloff in Phoenix contributed to this report.