By STEVEN R. HURST (Associated Press)
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama faced the horror of the movie theater massacre in Colorado in person Sunday, making a brief stop in a shattered town to comfort families of the victims senselessly gunned down while viewing a blockbuster movie.
The impossible-to-understand killings — apparently the work of an unhinged former doctoral student — briefly silenced the presidential campaign over the weekend. Both Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney cut short their schedules late last week and closed down their television advertising in Colorado out of respect for the victims and their families.
“We need to embrace them and let them know we will be there for them as a nation,” Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address.
The president planned just a brief visit to Colorado — a bit under 2 1/2 hours — during which he also met with local officials in Aurora, where the shots rang out at a multiplex theater early Friday. Twelve of the victims died, 58 were injured.
“I think the president coming in is a wonderful gesture,” said Aurora’s mayor, Steve Hogan. “He’s coming in, really, to have private conversations with the families. I think that’s totally appropriate.”
Hogan told ABC television’s “This Week” that it “certainly means a lot to Aurora to know that the president cares.”
After the Colorado stop, Obama flew to San Francisco, where on Monday he’ll begin a previously scheduled three-day campaign trip that includes a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno, Nevada, multiple fundraisers in California, Oregon and Washington state, and a speech to the National Urban League convention in New Orleans.
Aides said Obama received updates Saturday from his homeland security adviser, John Brennan, on the investigation into the shooting and the attempts by authorities to gain access to the suspect’s apparently booby-trapped apartment.
For Obama, the Colorado visit was to be his second to the state in just over three weeks. Last month, he flew to Colorado Springs to share the pain of homeowners whose houses had been turned to charred heaps by a record outbreak of wildfires.
Obama and Romney used previously scheduled campaign appearances on Friday to focus attention on the need for national unity in the aftermath of the shootings. Their campaign teams rescheduled Sunday television news show appearances by top aides and surrogates, essentially providing a break in what has been an increasingly negative campaign.
The Colorado rampage injected a new tone into the campaign after Obama and Romney had clashed repeatedly over the economy, health care programs for the elderly, and the Republican candidate’s tax returns.
Obama was set to start his second day of events in Florida when the shootings occurred, prompting his team to address the violence at a previously scheduled rally in Fort Myers, Obama told supporters in Fort Myers that the shootings served as a ”reminder that life is very fragile.”
”Our time here is limited and it is precious. And what matters at the end of the day is not the small things, it’s not the trivial things,” he said. ”Ultimately, it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.”
Romney echoed Obama’s call for unity, saying at a previously scheduled event in Bow, New Hampshire, that he joined with the president and first lady in offering condolences for those ”whose lives were shattered in a few moments, a few moments of evil in Colorado.”
Following the killing of six people and wounding of then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011, Obama called for a series of steps to ”keep those irresponsible, law-breaking few from getting their hands on a gun in the first place.”
Among those steps was a better federal background check system. The administration said Friday that it has indeed improved the amount and quality of information poured into that system, allowing background checks to be more thorough.
Romney backed some gun control measures when he was governor of Massachusetts. When he challenged Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 1994 he declared, ”I don’t line up with the NRA.” In April, Romney told the National Rifle Association, an influential lobbying group representing gun owners, he was a guardian of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That amendment guarantees the right to bear arms.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said the Republican candidate believes that the ”best way to prevent gun violence is to vigorously enforce our laws.”