NEWTOWN, Connecticut (Reuters) - Worshippers filled Sunday services to mourn the victims of a gunman’s elementary school rampage that killed 20 children and six adults with President Barack Obama due to appear later at an interfaith vigil to help this shattered Connecticut town recover.
Twenty-year-old gunman Adam Lanza shot his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Friday morning, firing away at students and staff with the civilian version of a powerful military rifle and at least two handguns. Victims were hit multiple times and at least one was shot 11 times, authorities said.
All the dead children were either 6 or 7 years old, feeding more emotion into a revived debate about whether stricter gun laws could prevent future mass shootings in the United States.
“If this doesn’t shake the consciousness of the country about doing better to protect our children, I don’t know what will,” said Pedro Segarra, mayor of Hartford, the state capital.
While townspeople grieved, investigators continued to examine forensic evidence and scour the crime scene in a process likely to extend for weeks. Many more witnesses needed to be interviewed, possibly including children who survived the attack, said Lieutenant Paul Vance of the Connecticut state police.
Some of the bodies have been turned over to families, he said.
“We have the best of the best working on this case. ... Our goal is to paint a complete picture so that we all know and the public knows exactly what happened here,” Vance said.
Townspeople and visitors took solace in church. Mass at St. Rose Catholic church was packed. The priest’s announcements at the end included news that the Christmas pageant rehearsal would go on as planned, but without 6-year-old Olivia Engel, killed on Friday before she could play the role of an angel.
On Saturday, Jews gathered at Congregation Adath Israel of Newtown to express their disbelief at the massacre and show support for the survivors.
About 30 members of the Islamic Association of Connecticut came to St. Rose carrying tulips to lay on the memorials in the church’s front yard.
“Everyone here is from all over Connecticut,” said Feryal Syed, 14. “I have friends who know some of the families of the kids. We felt if anything happened to our children like this we would feel horrible. We tried to put ourselves in their shoes.”
Obama was scheduled to attend an interfaith vigil with the families of the victims starting at 7 p.m. EST (0000 GMT).
Makeshift memorials appeared in this affluent town of 27,000 people about 80 miles (130 km) from New York City.
The largest, festooned with flowers and teddy bears, sat at the end of Dickenson Drive where Sandy Hook Elementary stands. Residents and visitors streamed past a police roadblock to add to it. One woman knelt down and sobbed violently.
As the children walked down the street in the rain, carrying their toys and signs, a man sat on the back on his parked car playing a mournful tune on a violin to accompany them.
“This is a time to come together,” said Carina Bandhaver, 43, who lives in nearby Southbury.
The children who survived will not have to return to the scene of the massacre when school reopens later this week and instead will attend classes at an unused school in a neighboring Connecticut town about 7 miles (11 km), school officials said. Classes elsewhere in the town would resume on Tuesday, except at Sandy Hook.
Several Democratic lawmakers called for a new push for U.S. gun restrictions on Sunday, including a ban on military-style assault weapons.
Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein of California, the author of an assault-weapons ban that lapsed in 2004, said she would introduce new legislation this week.
“I think we could be at a tipping point ... where we might get something done,” New York’s Charles Schumer, another top Senate Democrat, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Gun rights advocates have countered that Connecticut already has among the strictest gun laws in the nation.
Obama’s appearance will be watched closely for clues as to what he meant when he called for “meaningful action” to prevent such tragedies.
The president arrives after authorities released the names of the dead on Saturday and more details emerged about the victims and the rampage itself.
After killing his mother, Nancy Lanza, at home, Adam Lanza shot his way into the school and started firing at the children, most if not all with a powerful rifle - a military-style Bushmaster .223 M4 carbine - at close range. He also killed six adult women at the school and himself, putting the death toll at 28.
Lanza had struggled at times to fit into the community and his mother Nancy pulled him out of school for several years to home-school him, said Louise Tambascio, the owner of My Place Restaurant, where his mother was a long-time patron.
His father, Peter Lanza, issued a statement saying the family was in a “state of disbelief.”
“We too are asking why,” the statement said.
Nancy Lanza legally owned a Sig Sauer and a Glock, both handguns commonly used by police in addition to the long gun, according to law enforcement officials. Police found three guns at the scene and a fourth in an undisclosed location, Vance said.
Though Americans have seen many mass shootings over the years, the victims have rarely been so young. An appalled and grieving nation learned more about the dead.
Emilie Parker, another of the child victims, was studying Portuguese with her father, Robbie Parker, who opened up about his daughter in an emotional news conference in which he turned both glowing and teary.
“This world is a better place because she has been in it,” Parker said.
Additional reporting by Edith Honan and Martinne Geller; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Will Dunham