An emotional President Barack Obama vowed on Friday to "take meaningful action, regardless of the politics," to prevent future tragedies like the shooting massacre Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
"Our hearts are broken today," Obama said in a brief statement at the White House briefing room, frequently pausing to wipe tears from his eyes. "The majority of those who died today were children, beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them: birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own. Among the fallen were also teachers, men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children fulfill their dreams."
Obama expressed sorrow for the victims' loved ones and sympathy for the parents of the children who survived but who know that "their children's innocence has been torn away from them too early."
"As a country we have been through this too many times," Obama said, listing a series of mass shootings over the past few years in places like Aurora, Colo.
"These neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children. And we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics," he stressed.
Earlier, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that "today's not the day" to talk about possible new gun control steps meant to prevent such tragedies in the future.
Obama ordered flags over government facilities to be flown at half-staff until sunset on Dec. 18. Shortly after he spoke, Connecticut State Police said the death toll included 20 children, six adults and the shooter.
Obama learned of the rampage at 10:30 a.m. from Homeland Security adviser John Brennan. He later discussed it by telephone with FBI Director Robert Mueller and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy.
Obama's reference to acting "regardless of the politics" seemed likely to be a reference to deep opposition in Congress to new gun control legislation.
"Today's not ... a day to engage in the usual Washington policy debates," Carney told reporters. "That day will come, but today's not that day." Carney said renewing a federal assault weapons ban "does remain a commitment" of the president. The ban expired in 2004, and Obama has taken no serious steps to renew it on Capitol Hill.
Carney declined to answer repeated questions on when would be an appropriate time for lawmakers in Washington to discuss possible actions to prevent future tragedies. "Our minds and our focus need to be on what's happening there and providing assistance where we can to those who need it," he said, urging "enormous sympathy for the families that are affected."
One reporter pointed to Obama's remarks in July just days after a shooting spree that left 12 dead and about 60 injured at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
"I hope that over the next several days, next several weeks and next several months, we all reflect on how we can do something about some of the senseless violence that ends up marring this country," Obama said at the time.
Obama has made similar comments before, including at a January 2011 memorial for the victims of a mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., in which then-Rep. Gabby Giffords was grievously wounded.
"We have to examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future," Obama said. "But what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other. That we cannot do."
Republican House Speaker John Boehner likewise ordered the Stars and Stripes lowered over the Capitol.
"The horror of this day seems so unbearable, but we will lock arms and unite as citizens, for that is how Americans rise above unspeakable evil," Boehner said in a written statement. "Let us all come together in God's grace to pray for the families of the victims, that they may find some comfort and peace amid such suffering.
"Let us give thanks for all those who helped get people to safety, and take heart from their example. The House of Representatives—like every American—stands ready to assist the people of Newtown, Connecticut," Boehner said.