It was the only time I have ever regretted putting my hand on someone’s shoulder.
I was standing in a classroom somewhere behind the auditorium at Newtown High School in Connecticut. I had arrived a few hours before, and my job was to staff President Obama as he visited the families of the children who had been killed just two days before.
The task was straightforward: work with a team of logistical experts (in Washington-speak, the “advance team”) to set up a series of classrooms where the families of the fallen could meet quietly with President Obama. And then, as the faith-based office director and religious adviser, I was to accompany the president on these somber visits.
The whole weekend had been surreal. One moment I was sitting at my desk, working on a memo. And the next, jarring words and images flashed on CNN.
“Gunman.” A line of children, walking hand in hand, crying. Panicked parents moving about a high school gym.
When the details came in about Sandy Hook Elementary School, a shocked numbness set in. Really—20 6- and 7-year-olds? Shot with an assault rifle in their classroom? Their teachers, too? That can’t be true. It just can’t.
A group of us huddled around a conference table in the White House, bowing our heads, tears flowing. I spent most of Friday afternoon and evening trying to comfort colleagues, many of whom were working on the response in various ways but needed to take a break to sob, and pray.
By Saturday, I was on a plane to Connecticut. On Sunday, I’m standing in a biology classroom, and the president of the United States is holding tightly to moms and dads who would never see their children again.
I honestly have no idea how these parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters even showed up. I thought about my younger siblings, and how I might have been catatonic if I lost them in the same manner. But the families were there—some angry, most sobbing, but they were there—standing strong, seeking comfort from each other, and from the president of the United States.
And President Obama gave every ounce of comfort possible. There were well over 100 family members, in seven or eight classrooms. Every mom received a lasting hug. Every dad, a look directly in the eye and sincere offer of prayer. Every little brother and sister was tossed in the air, to try to elicit a laugh, or even a brief smile.
The parents brought pictures of the lost and their favorite drawings, and the president looked intently at each one. He had to have been thinking about his own girls’ class photos; their colorful second-grade sketches.
In one room, I made a mistake. There was a young couple whose little girl was killed by the gunman. The mom was shaking, sobbing quietly, but the dad just looked … stunned. He had a picture of his daughter in his hand, one of those small “proof” photos that you get with a package of family portraits.
He just kept looking at the picture, staring at his little brunette with her big, toothy grin. His fingers were rubbing back and forth on the photo, as if he was trying to animate his baby back to life. As President Obama greeted other people in the room, I found myself standing behind this father, and I put my hand on his shoulder, trying to comfort him. But I guess my hand startled him; embarrassed, he put the photo in his pocket and looked away. I felt horrible—I gave his shoulder a squeeze, and moved on. It’s a moment that has haunted me ever since.
We can have esoteric policy debates about gun ownership. I am an avid hunter, from wild boar in West Virginia to deer in Maryland, and I believe there’s a legitimate role for long guns and handguns, in sport and self-defense.
But as a country, we now have to reckon with what has happened on our watch. Our young men and women are dying on the streets of Chicago, because anyone with half a brain can figure out how to get around background checks, into gun shows, or otherwise acquire a firearm. Our kids are getting off school buses without certainty that they will come home. And three months ago, the president of our great country found himself greeting 26 families whose 6- and 7-year-old boys and girls were mowed down execution style, by a maniac who had access to a rifle almost as a big as he was. What happened in Newtown on that awful December day was not abstract. I was there with them in that bitter reality. I saw their faces. The pain of that day was unrelenting. Our response must be as well.
There are some basic things we can do to prevent these tragedies. Background checks for everyone who wants to buy a gun. New laws to prevent gun trafficking. Responsible limits on military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines. Better policies on school safety and mental health.
The problem is, our politicians are either stuck in a realm of theoretical debates or, in the face of the NRA and its membership, they have lost their courage. And when a politician lacks courage, there’s only one thing that can help them: they need us to pick up the phone, write a letter, and let them know that enough is enough.
I can’t think of a more pressing moral issue we face as a country. I can’t think of a more urgent concern for people of faith and values, or of basic patriotic belief. Republican or Democrat, we must agree that the things these eyes of ours have seen—from Columbine to Virginia Tech, Oak Creek to Tucson, Aurora to Sandy Hook—require immediate action. They require elected leaders with a backbone. They require each of us speaking out. They require a vote.
I left a portion of my soul in those Newtown classrooms, with that dad who held his daughter’s photo tight. But it should not take a personal experience with tragedy to know that something is wrong, and it has to change. This week, the American people can be a part of that change, if every person speaks up and lets Congress know that the time for talking is over, and the time for solutions has come. Our children, and our values, deserve nothing less.