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Florida community, Obama pause to honor shooting victims

18 June 2016 No Comment

Embracing grieving Orlando families and appealing anew for national action, President Barack Obama claimed a threat to all Americans’ security Thursday as a strong reason to tighten U.S. gun laws. Counterterror campaigns overseas, he declared, can never prevent all “lone wolf” attacks like the one that killed 49 people in Orlando.

Speaking at a makeshift memorial to the victims, Obama said the massacre at a gay nightclub was evidence that “different steps” are needed to limit the damage a “deranged” person set on committing violence can do. He cheered on Democrats’ push for new gun control measures, including a new ban on assault weapons and stricter background checks.

Although he showed little hope the measures would find much support among most opponents, Obama seemed to be aiming for other lawmakers, perhaps Republican hawks eager to get behind counterterror campaigns but steadfastly opposed to gun restrictions.

Obama arrived as Orlando began the next stage of its grief — funerals all over town. A visitation for one victim, Javier Jorge-Reyes, on Wednesday night turned out a crowd of friends, family, drag queens and motorcyclists to pay their respects.

“We’re just here to spread love and joy and try to put an end to all the hate,” said Ezekiel Davis — or, as he’s known to some, Sister Anesthesia Beaverhausen. Obama could not miss other signs of a community coming together in tragedy. Hundreds of people gathered in 95-degree heat outside the Amway Center stadium where he met with families.

Brittany Woodrough came to honor her close friend, 19-year-old Jason Benjamin Josaphat.

“I just pray for his family and I can’t believe this happened,” she said. “Seeing President Obama here makes it real.”

Orlando’s calls for solidarity stood in contrast to the sharp-edged political debate in Washington and the presidential campaign trail that continued during Obama’s visit. Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican and frequent Obama critic, accused the president of being “directly responsible” for the shooting because, he said, Obama had allowed the growth of the Islamic State group on his watch.

The gunman, Omar Mateen, had made calls during the attack saying he was an IS supporter. But CIA Director John Brennan said Thursday the agency has found no connection between the gunman and any foreign terrorist organization.

In Orlando, Obama noted the need for strong efforts to fight terrorists before they can get to America, but he said that’s not enough.

“It’s going to take more than just our military,” he said. “We will not be able to stop every tragedy. We can’t wipe away hatred and evil from every heart in this world, but we can stop some tragedies. We can save some lives.

“We can reduce the impact of a terrorist attack if we’re smart,” he said, a reference to a ban on assault-type weapons that can kill dozens of people in moments. Mateen had such a weapon, an AR-15 rifle.

Obama made his remarks in downtown Orlando during an afternoon visit to express condolences to this grieving city. The president spent roughly two hours talking privately with victims’ families and survivors of the attack in a gay dance club. He told them he was inspired by their courage and felt their pain at the loss of so many young lives.

“Our hearts are broken, too,” he said.

Elsewhere in the city and in Washington, investigators were working to reconstruct the movements of the 29-year-old shooter before he opened fire at the Pulse dance club, including what his wife may have known about the attack. The Senate Homeland Security Committee’s chairman sent a letter to Facebook asking for help with messages denouncing the “filthy ways of the west” left on Facebook accounts believed to be associated with Mateen before and during the attack.

In his remarks, Obama also expressed solidarity with gays and lesbians who were targeted at the nightclub.

“This was an attack on the LGBT community. Americans were targeted because we’re a country that has learned to welcome everyone, no matter who you are or who you love,” Obama said. “And hatred toward people because of sexual orientation, regardless of where it comes from, is a betrayal of what’s best in us.”

There were some signs of political unity: Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican frequently at odds with Obama, greeted him on the airport tarmac. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, also a Republican, traveled with Obama from Washington, along with Rep. Corrine Brown, a Democrat who represents parts of the city. Biden and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., joined Obama on the tarmac.

But there was no bipartisan unity on the need for new gun legislation. As the Democratic push continued, including a 15-hour filibuster from Sen. Chris Murphy, whose state of Connecticut shouldered the killing of 20 children in Newtown in 2012, Republicans said their response would focused on the threat posed by the Islamic State group.

As a result, the Senate faced the prospect of taking votes beginning next Monday on dueling Democratic and GOP legislation. A Democratic bill would keep people on a government terrorism watch list or other suspected terrorists from buying guns. A Republican version would allow the government to delay a gun sale to a suspected terrorist for 72 hours but require prosecutors to go to court to show probable cause to block the sale permanently.

Both bills were expected to fail.

“I truly hope senators rise to the moment and do the right thing,” Obama said. “Those who defend the easy accessibility of assault weapons should meet these families and explain why that makes sense.”

Meanwhile, Republican Sen John McCain said Thursday that Obama is “directly responsible” for the mass shooting in Orlando because of the rise of the Islamic State group on the president’s watch. But he later issued a statement saying that he “misspoke.”

“I did not mean to imply that the president was personally responsible. I was referring to President Obama’s national security decisions, not the president himself,” McCain said in his statement, issued as his initial comments were drawing heated criticism from Democrats.

McCain, who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential election, spoke to reporters in the Capitol Thursday while Obama was in Orlando visiting with the families of those killed in Sunday’s attack and some of the survivors.

“Barack Obama is directly responsible for it, because when he pulled everybody out of Iraq, al-Qaida went to Syria, became ISIS, and ISIS is what it is today thanks to Barack Obama’s failures, utter failures, by pulling everybody out of Iraq,” a visibly angry McCain said as the Senate debated a spending bill.

“So the responsibility for it lies with President Barack Obama and his failed policies,” McCain said.

McCain is seeking a sixth Senate term from Arizona and is locked in a tight race. He has a Republican primary on Aug. 30 — the day after his 80th birthday — and a likely general election matchup against three-term Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick.

Questioned on his startling assertion, McCain initially repeated it: “Directly responsible. Because he pulled everybody out of Iraq, and I predicted at the time that ISIS would go unchecked and there would be attacks on the United States of America. It’s a matter of record, so he is directly responsible.”

However, about 90 minutes later, McCain issued his statement saying he misspoke, though his statement continued to lay blame for the attack on the president’s policies — just not on the president himself.

“As I have said, President Obama’s decision to completely withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 led to the rise of ISIL. I and others have long warned that the failure of the president’s policy to deny ISIL safe haven would allow the terrorist organization to inspire, plan, direct or conduct attacks on the United States and Europe as they have done in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino and now Orlando.”

Democrats quickly pounced on McCain’s criticism.

Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said McCain’s “unhinged comments are just the latest proof that Senate Republicans are puppets of Donald Trump.”

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