Since taking office, President Joe Biden has traveled a grim path through American communities desperately grieving in the wake of mass shootings: Uvalde, Texas; Monterey Park, California; Buffalo, New York; Atlanta.
On Friday, he added another to the list: Lewiston, Maine.
Biden huddled privately with the families of those killed or injured during last month’s rampage that claimed the lives of 18 people at a bar and a bowling alley in the city about an hour north of Portland. He also met with nurses, local officials and the law enforcement officers who spent two days hunting the killer.
“Jill and I are here on behalf of the American people to grieve with you, and make sure you know that you’re not alone,” Biden said after stopping by a makeshift memorial in Lewiston with his wife, Jill Biden.
It is the sad reality of the modern presidency that the occupant of the Oval Office is often called upon to channel the country’s sorrow and to directly console those whose lives have been shattered. For Biden, whose own life has been shaped by grief, it is a role he embraces as a necessary part of healing.
The president’s brief visit was not, White House officials acknowledged, a moment for Biden to begin a forceful new push for gun control measures. In his remarks, which lasted just over four minutes, he did not repeat his call for a ban on assault weapons, universal background checks and other legislation that both parties in Congress agree have no chance of passing among polarized lawmakers.
Instead, the president used the opportunity to urge Americans to seek consensus more broadly in the hopes of avoiding more of the spasms of deadly violence that have become a routine part of life in the United States.
“This is about common sense,” he said. “Reasonable, responsible measures to protect our children, our families, our communities. Because regardless of our politics, this is about protecting our freedom to go to a bowling alley, restaurant, school, church without being shot and killed.”
Shortly after the massacre, Biden declared his frustration at yet another mass shooting. The gunman, Robert R. Card II, 40, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound last Friday night, two days after the killings.
“Once again, an American community and American families have been devastated by gun violence,” Biden said in the remarks last month. “In all, at least 18 souls brutally slain, more injured, some critically, and scores of family and friends praying and experiencing trauma no one ever wants to imagine.”
The president’s arrival in Maine on Friday came as an investigation continued into Card’s motives and as law enforcement officials faced questions about why nothing was done to prevent Card’s rampage — even though officials at his Army Reserve unit and local authorities knew for months of his deteriorating mental health.
Members of Card’s family first warned the sheriff’s office in Sagadahoc County, where Card lived, in May that he had collected roughly a dozen guns and was growing increasingly paranoid and angry. By that time, the Army Reserve was already aware of his decline, records show.
Then, in September, Army Reserve officials in Saco, Maine, asked the sheriff’s office to check on Card after he punched a friend and said he was going to carry out a shooting rampage at the Reserve base and elsewhere.
But despite those warnings, the sheriff’s office never made contact with Card, opting instead to trust that his family would be able to remove his guns. A little over a month later, he carried out the deadliest mass shooting of the year.
Maine has high rates of hunting and gun ownership and has stopped short of the “red flag” laws in other states that allow police to take guns from people who are found to be a danger to themselves or others.
Instead, Maine has a “yellow flag” law that requires the police to have a person evaluated by a medical practitioner and then go before a judge before the person’s firearms can be taken away.
Outside the Lewiston airport just before Biden landed, two neighbors with different politics were walking their dogs and thinking about how the shooting had upended the region, bringing their views on guns and mental illness to the front of their minds.
Diane Daskey said she had voted for former President Donald Trump but was glad that Biden was in town to pay his respects and meet with families of the victims.
“I didn’t vote for him, but I’m glad that he’s coming,” Daskey said. “We appreciate it as a community. This whole thing has torn us apart.”
She added that she still supported people’s right to own guns, but maybe not AR-15-style rifles.
Her neighbor, Karen Berube, a supporter of Biden’s, chimed in: “Not assault rifles. Absolutely not. We don’t need any assault rifles.”
Berube said the shooting had shaken Lewiston and the tight-knit communities around it.
“It’s terrifying and heartbreaking,” she said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.