President renews calls for racial healing, gun control

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, pauses while speaking in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington on Thursday on the church shooting in Charleston, prior to his departure to Los Angeles.

For President Barack Obama, the mass shooting at a Charleston church was personal.

Obama addressed the nation from the White House shortly after noon Thursday as a prayer vigil for the nine victims was underway, and said both he and his wife Michelle knew the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and other members of the church where Wednesday night’s massacre occurred.

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

While Obama has visited South Carolina only once since it gave him his big victory in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, he has met with Pinckney, a soft-spoken state senator and one of the state’s highest ranking Democrats.

Obama also explained the historic significance of Mother Emanuel, the 19th century black church where the shooting happened, comparing the incident to the 1963 murder of four black school girls in Birmingham, Ala., and calling for national introspection on gun control.

Obama said he would let law enforcement do its work to ensure justice is served and noted that Attorney General Loretta Lynch has opened a hate crime investigation.

Obama said he is limited in saying some things as investigators do their work, “but I don’t need to be constrained about the emotions that tragedies like this raise. I’ve had to make statements like this too many times.”

He said the setting of the mass shooting, inside a black church, raises questions about a dark part of American history.

“We know hatred across races and faiths poses a particular threat to our democracy and ideals,” he said. “I’m confident that the outpouring of faith and fellowship from all races and faiths and places of worship indicates the degree in which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome.”

Obama said innocent people were killed because someone who wanted to harm them “had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”

While he acknowledged new gun control legislation was unlikely in Washington these days — a major legislative push following the Sandy Hook school massacre in Connecticut came up short — he noted other civilized countries don’t see the same level of gun violence.

“It would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it, and at some point, it’s going to become important for the American people to come to grips with and to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence, collectively.”

Obama said it is within the power of the American people to address it.

“Any death of this sort is a tragedy, any shooting involving multiple victims is a tragedy,” he said. “There is something particularly heartbreaking about a death happening in a place where we seek solace, where we seek peace.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.