President Obama on Navy Yard Shootings: 'Once More, We Ask Why'

At a memorial for the victims, Obama sounds off again on gun violence.

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President Obama delivers a speech at the D.C. Navy Yard memorial. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

(The Root) -- Five.

That is the number of communities with whom President Obama said he has grieved over mass violence during his time as president. The speech he delivered on Sunday was to 4,000 people who gathered to honor the lives of the 12 men and women killed at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard in a mass shooting last Monday. After naming each tragedy (Fort Hood, Texas; Tucson, Ariz.; Aurora, Colo.; Newtown, Conn.; Washington, D.C.), Obama spoke of the daily gun violence in cities across the country, "on the streets of Chicago, to neighborhoods not far from here."

The president was joined at the memorial by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, Navy Secretary Ray Nabus and first lady Michelle Obama. In his speech, Obama channeled the cynicism and emotional fatigue of a nation that has been overwhelmed with gun violence. He said the D.C. Navy yard shooting and the lives that were taken were "unique," but in the middle and end of his speech, the frustration in his voice grew as he referenced the daunting familiarity of mass shootings like the one in the D.C. Navy Yard.

"Once more, we come together to mourn the lives of beauty, and the comfort, and the wonderful families who cherished them. Once more, we pay tribute to all who rush toward the danger, who risk their lives so others might live, and who are in our prayers today, including Officer Scott Williams. Once more, our hearts are broken. Once more, we ask why," he said.

As has been customary, the president met with the families and loved ones of the Navy yard shooting victims privately prior to the memorial. He mentioned things he had learned about the victims in his 20-minute speech, showing that the lives taken were more than statistics.

After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, Obama pushed for stricter gun control legislation, only to see a compromise struck down by the Senate in April. On Sunday he expressed his frustration with the lack of action on the issue since Sandy Hook. "It ought to be a shock to all of us, as a nation and as a people. It ought to obsess us. It ought to lead to some sort of transformation," he said. "That's what happened in other countries when they experienced similar tragedies. In the United Kingdom, in Australia, when just a single mass shooting occurred in those countries, they understood there was nothing ordinary about this kind of carnage. They endured great heartbreak, but they also mobilized and they changed. And mass shootings became a great rarity.

"And yet here in the United States," he continued, "After the round-of-clock coverage on cable news, after the heartbreaking interviews with families, after all the speeches and all the punditry and all the commentary, nothing happens. Alongside the anguish of these American families, alongside the accumulated outrage so many of us feel, sometimes I fear there's a creeping resignation. That these tragedies are just somehow the way it is. That this is somehow the new normal."

Unlike past speeches, in which Obama urged his colleagues and fellow leaders to find a way to get things done, Obama this time directed his message to everyday Americans. "By now, though, it should be clear that the change we need will not come from Washington, even when tragedy strikes Washington," he said. "Change will come the only way it has come and that's from the American people."

The president asked for help in making sure he doesn't give a sixth speech honoring victims of gun violence. "Our tears are not enough. Our words and our prayers are not enough. If we really want to honor these 12 men and women, if we really want to be country where we can go to work and go to school and walk our streets free from senseless violence without so many lives being stolen by a bullet from a gun, then we're going to have to change. We're going to have to change."

Jozen Cummings is a writer living in Harlem, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter and read his blog, UntilIgetmarried.com.

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