The president hugged Jackie Hegarty, a Sandy Hook survivor and now a rising senior at Newton High School, after she introduced him.
“I heard and saw things no child, no person should ever have to see,” Hegarty said. She added, “Thankfully, we have a president who does more than send thoughts and prayers.”
For 10 years, parents, siblings, spouses and survivors of Sandy Hook have poured into St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill, some clinging to photos of the 6- and 7-year-old children they lost. The group has been joined over the years by other grieving Americans, including those who lost loved ones at a high school in Parkland, Fla., nearly five years ago and, earlier this year, at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where some families face their first holiday season without their child.
The national vigil, organized by the Newtown Action Alliance Fund and partners, has become a yearly gathering place for gun survivors and advocates across the country. Lawmakers and their staff were also invited to attend.
Attendees held white candles, as photos of gun violence victims and their names played on a projector. Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal and Rep. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; and Rep.-elect Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) also attended the vigil.
Biden’s mood was somber as he leaned into his own experiences with grief, recounting the loss of his wife and infant daughter in a car accident 50 years ago this month. He led the room in a moment of silence before leaving the stage.
“Everyone’s different, but I know that feeling,” Biden said, of grieving. “You know. It’s like a black hole in the middle of your chest you’re being dragged into.”
Advocates told POLITICO they viewed the vigil as an opportunity for the president to shed light on an issue that continues to plague American society, and one that has left a mark on Biden’s decades long political career — as well as his young presidency. In just two years in the White House, responding to mass shootings has become routine for Biden officials.
The president has visited two communities struck by mass shootings, and the White House has issued at least 16 statements to mark the killings. During other scheduled remarks, Biden has had to devote time to addressing gun violence tragedies.
Biden has a lengthy record in trying to prevent gun violence. As vice president he was the Obama administration’s point person on gun policy after the Sandy Hook shooting, which left 20 first-graders and six educators dead. But none of the bills to expand background checks, ban certain assault rifles and limit the size of magazines cleared the 60 votes needed to beat back a Senate filibuster at the time.
“We’ve seen him when the cameras are off. That’s why we’re so excited to have him here today,” said Murphy, an ally of the president, recounting both Biden’s reaction to the Sandy Hook shooting and the president’s push for gun legislation earlier this year.
The politics surrounding gun legislation have shifted since the Sandy Hook shooting, as evidenced by Biden’s gun policy accomplishments as president. Following mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde this year, Biden signed the first gun safety bill in nearly 30 years and saw through the bipartisan confirmation of the first director of the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms since 2013.
Biden has continued to trumpet the need for more changes, including an assault weapons ban, in the wake of continued mass shootings. In November alone, a Walmart employee opened fire, killing six people in a break room; five people were killed and 18 were injured in an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs; and in Charlottesville, Va., a former football player opened fire in a garage after a field trip, killing three students.
Events remembering loved ones can be hard for survivors, Biden said on Wednesday.
“No matter how many years go by, it brings it back,” Biden said. “But your voices matter.”