President meets massacre survivors; Senate weighs gun control measures

By Bernie Woodall & Roberta Rampton
Reuters

ORLANDO, Fla. – President Barack Obama met survivors of a gay nightclub massacre and relatives of the 49 people killed on Thursday and said the United States must act to control gun violence and fight what he called homegrown terrorism.

“The last two terrorist attacks on our soil – Orlando and San Bernardino – were homegrown,” Obama told reporters. “We’re going to have to do more to prevent these kinds of events from occurring. It’s going to take more than just our military. It’s going to take more than just our intelligence community.”

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Orlando, Florida, four days after a U.S.-born gunman claiming allegiance to various Islamist militant groups carried out the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

The United States has made it too easy for disturbed or wrathful people to legally acquire high-powered weapons like the assault rifle used in the attack on Sunday, Obama said.

“I held and hugged” grieving family members before laying flowers at a memorial for the victims of the attack on the Pulse nightclub, he said. Police killed the gunman, Omar Mateen, 29, a U.S. citizen born in New York to Afghan immigrants.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack but U.S. officials have said they do not believe Mateen was assisted from abroad. CIA Director John Brennan told a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday that the agency had “not been able to uncover any direct link” between Mateen and militants abroad.

A married couple also claiming allegiance to Islamic State shot dead 14 people in San Bernardino, California, in December.

A woman visits the vigil site for the shooting victims at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, June 16, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
A woman visits the vigil site for the shooting victims at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, June 16, 2016. | REUTERS/Jim Young
Orlando Mourns

Orlando mourned the dead after what was also the worst attack in America on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Wakes were under way for at least three victims: Kimberly Morris, Anthony Luis Laureano Disla and Roy Fernandez.

Twenty-three of the 53 wounded remained hospitalized, six in critical condition, according to Orlando Regional Medical Center.

During his attack, Mateen also posted messages on Facebook.

One message, apparently referring to air strikes against Islamic State by the United States and its allies, said: “You kill innocent women and children by doing us air strikes … now taste the Islamic State vengeance,” according to a letter to Facebook <FB.O> from the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security.

The attack sparked a fresh debate over how the United States responds to Islamist militant violence at home and abroad, with Republican Senator John McCain telling reporters on Thursday he viewed Obama as “directly responsible” for the Orlando attack due to his failure to prevent the rise of Islamic State.

Shortly afterward, McCain said on his official Twitter feed that he was referring to Obama’s national security decisions, “not to the President himself.”

Mateen carried out the slaughter with an assault weapon and handgun that had been legally purchased although he had twice been investigated in the past by the FBI for possible connections with militant Islamist groups.

A resident holds a sign which reads 'AR-15s are weapons of mass destruction' as the motorcade transporting U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Orlando for the president's meeting with families of victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, in Florida, U.S., June 16, 2016.  REUTERS/Carlos Barria
A resident holds a sign which reads ‘AR-15s are weapons of mass destruction’ as the motorcade transporting U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Orlando for the president’s meeting with families of victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, in Florida, U.S., June 16, 2016. | REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Congress under pressure

Obama, who has denounced the attack as both an act of terrorism and a hate crime, reiterated his frustration over the easy availability of guns in America and the failure of Congress to pass any gun control measures in more than two decades.

The massacre put pressure on Congress to act.

After a marathon of speeches by Democrats on Wednesday and into the early hours of Thursday, a Democratic senator said Republicans had agreed to hold votes on measures to expand background checks and prevent people on U.S. terrorism watch lists from buying guns.

No formal deal between the parties for votes was announced, and it was unclear exactly when and how the Senate would proceed with the votes, which would be amendments to an appropriations bill funding the Commerce and Justice departments. Even if votes are now scheduled, it is unclear whether any of the bills can gain enough support to pass the Senate.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said the chamber will most likely vote on four gun control measures on Monday.

Republicans, who currently hold a 54-person majority in the 100-seat Senate, have blocked a number of Democratic-backed gun control measures over the years, saying they infringe on Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms. Some Republican gun control measures – deemed insufficient by Democrats – have also failed to pass.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump also joined the gun debate, announcing on Wednesday he would meet with the National Rifle Association to talk about barring people who are on terrorism watch lists from buying guns.

Any new legislative action would be the first in the United States in more than 20 years, evidence of the difficulty of changing the minds of Americans who want ready access to firearms based on the U.S. Constitution’s right to bear arms, considered sacrosanct by gun advocates.

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