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A heartbreaking account of Obama comforting the grieving families after Sandy Hook

Obama speaks on gun control in Connecticut, a few months after Sandy Hook.
Obama speaks on gun control in Connecticut, a few months after Sandy Hook.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Three years ago today, 26 people, 20 of them children, were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. And President Obama went to comfort the families of the victims — a heartbreaking task.

The website Vox Populi (no relation to highlights a portion of The President's Devotional, a book by Joshua Dubois, who used to head the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Dubois was with Obama when he went to Newtown immediately after the shooting:

The president took a deep breath and steeled himself, and went into the first classroom. And what happened next I’ll never forget.

Person after person received an engulfing hug from our commander in chief. He’d say, "Tell me about your son. . . . Tell me about your daughter," and then hold pictures of the lost beloved as their parents described favorite foods, television shows, and the sound of their laughter. For the younger siblings of those who had passed away—many of them two, three, or four years old, too young to understand it all—the president would grab them and toss them, laughing, up into the air, and then hand them a box of White House M&M’s, which were always kept close at hand. In each room, I saw his eyes water, but he did not break.

And then the entire scene would repeat—for hours. Over and over and over again, through well over a hundred relatives of the fallen, each one equally broken, wrecked by the loss.

Since then, there have been more than 1,000 shootings of four or more people at one time in the US. The past year has averaged more than one mass shooting per day. President Obama's statements have gone from grieving to angry.

But the Sandy Hook shooting sticks in people's minds despite the more recent carnage in Oregon and San Bernardino, and as a turning point in the American gun debate. As one viral tweet put it:

Go deeper:

  • America's gun problem is unique, Vox's German Lopez writes.
  • Many people expected Sandy Hook to be a watershed for gun control in the US — but more states have expanded gun rights in the three years since the shooting, the Associated Press finds.
  • An analysis from NBC finds that on average, an American child has been killed by a gun every other day since Sandy Hook.