WASHINGTON — A tearful President Barack Obama said Friday he grieved first as a father about the massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, declaring, "Our hearts are broken today." He called for "meaningful action" to prevent such shootings but did not say what it should be.
"The majority of those who died were children — beautiful, little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old," Obama said.
At that point he had to pause for several seconds to keep his composure, and he wiped his eyes.
The scene in the White House briefing room was one of the most emotional moments of Obama's presidency. Near him, two senior aides cried and held hands as they listened to the president.
Obama began his comments with no greeting. He ended them with words of Scripture, walking away in silence.
He recited the future milestones lost, and had to pause again to gather his words.
"They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own," the president said of those who were killed.
He ordered that U.S. flags be flown at half-staff on public grounds through Tuesday. The White House also canceled a trip Obama was planning to take Wednesday to Portland, Maine. Notably, House Speaker John Boehner, with whom Obama is locked in tense budget negotiations, announced that Republicans would not offer their usual Saturday radio address "so that President Obama can speak for the entire nation at this time of mourning."
The president signaled a desire for action to address gun violence, but he was not specific.
"As a country, we have been through this too many times," Obama said. "We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."
As the president received briefings about the shooting, his spokesman, Jay Carney, responded to questions about gun control and Obama's campaign promises on the matter by saying "I don't think today is that day" for such a discussion.
Others, however, said it was.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an advocate of greater limits on guns, responded directly to the president's remarks: "Calling for 'meaningful action' is not enough. We need immediate action. We have heard all the rhetoric before."
During Obama's time in office, mass shootings have shaken communities in Wisconsin, Texas and Colorado.
Obama spoke from the "James S. Brady Press Briefing Room," named in 2000 in honor of the former White House press secretary, James Brady, who was shot and disabled in the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981. Brady and his wife, Sarah, have become activists for gun control.
The president and his wife, Michelle, have two daughters.
"Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter," he said. "But there are families in Connecticut who cannot do that tonight, and they need all us of right now."