‘Today is about the families’

By Mark Baker | Umpqua Community College Shootings | |

ROSEBURG — President Barack Obama, bringing the sorrow of a nation along with him for the latest in a seemingly endless string of mass shootings in recent years, this one claiming the lives of nine and injuring nine others at Umpqua Community College here on Oct. 1, met with the families of the victims for almost an hour on Friday at Roseburg High School.

“I’ve got some very strong feelings about this,” a somber and barely audible Obama said at a short media event afterward, Gov. Kate Brown and Roseburg Mayor Larry Rich by his side. “Because when you talk to these families, you’re reminded that this could happen to your child, your mom, your dad, relatives, friends. Today is about the families.”

Obama met with family members inside the high school’s fine arts building, fitting his quick visit to Roseburg into a previously scheduled trip to the West Coast.

He was greeted by several hundred protesters at the Roseburg airport. They object to Obama’s desire for tougher gun control.

The victims’ families declined to comment about their meeting with Obama or could not be reached after it.

Brown declined to comment about the meeting with the families, and Rich could not be reached for comment.

Obama said the families wanted to express how much they appreciate the “help, thoughts and prayers of the entire UCC community and the country.”

He told Brown and Rich that if there was anything he could do at the federal level to help, he would do it.

“Obviously we’re going to be there” for you, he said.

He added that at some point the nation must “come together” to find a way to prevent such shooting tragedies from occurring with such regularity.

“We’re going to have to come together as a country, but today is about the families,” Obama said. He then placed his hand gently on the governor’s back as they walked to his waiting limousine.

After landing in Air Force One in Eugene shortly before noon, the president flew to Roseburg Regional Airport on a Marine One helicopter and was met by Brown as he stepped off the helicopter. The Roseburg airport has too short a runway to handle Air Force One. The Eugene airport runway was lengthened in 1991 to accommodate Boeing 747-class aircraft. Air Force One is a highly customized 747.

Aviation Drive next to the Roseburg airport was lined with residents, many of them with small U.S. flags and anti-Obama signs in their hands, many of them opposed to the president’s visit after his statement last week urging greater gun control.

Some of the protest signs read “We support Sheriff Hanlin,” a reference to Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin, who has found himself politically embroiled in this tragedy since it has been revealed that he sent Vice President Joe Biden a letter in January 2013, a month after the Sandy Hook school shootings in Newtown, Conn., saying he would not enforce action by Congress or the president that infringed upon the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms.

Hanlin made a formal request to Biden “that you NOT tamper with or attempt to amend the 2nd Amendment. Gun control is NOT the answer to preventing heinous crimes like school shootings.”

Jan Ruddy, 64, of Roseburg, stood holding a sign that said: “I’m Christian” and “Why didn’t God stop the shooting?” and “How could he? He’s not allowed in school anymore.”

“I’m afraid this is the beginning,” Cuddy said of last week’s massacre at UCC. “I’m afraid we’re going to see a lot more of them,” she said of mass shootings.

She was there to protest her opposition to the separation of church and state in public schools, which is what her sign referred to, she said, as well as Obama’s visit.

“As long as we take Christ out of schools and out of government, we don’t have a chance,” Ruddy said.

As for Obama visiting?

“I’m not happy,” she said. “He’s approached it wrong. I can still see his face,” she said, referring to his expression during a press conference the day of the shooting. “He got angry and said we need more gun control, and I think that’s wrong.”

But on a day when a memorial service was in progress at the Douglas County Fairgrounds for Lucero Alcaraz, 19, one of the nine killed just eight days ago, when Obama landed, the president did not say anything about gun control.

Three more memorial services were scheduled for Saturday in Douglas County.

As his motorcade traveled to the high school, there were signs that many did welcome the president to this deep-red, blue-collar town of 22,000.

People holding signs that said “WELCOME” and “Welcome to Roseburg” and “UCC Strong.”

Other signs, though, read:

“Gun free zones are for sitting ducks” and “Obama is wrong” and “Nothing trumps our liberty.”

Security was tight at Roseburg High, where a dog-sniffing bomb squad patrolled the grounds during Obama’s visit and Secret Service personnel with binoculars could be seen on top of the building.

None of the victims or families could be seen at the high school. At least one of the families was not planning to meet with the president.

“I’ve spoken to my family, and for myself and for my daughter and son, on principle, I find that I am in disagreement with his policies on gun control, and therefore, we will not be attending the visit,” Stacy Boylan told Fox 12 TV in Portland on Wednesday.

Boylan’s daughter, Ana Boylan, 18, was shot in the back and airlifted to Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield eight days ago. After surgery to remove the bullet, which missed her spine and left no permanent damage, according to doctors, she was released on Tuesday, a day after briefly telling her story on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Stacy Boylan is one of a few parents who, in relating his daughter’s story, said the gunman, Chris Harper-Mercer, 26, asked students in the Introduction to Expository Writing class if they were Christian before killing them in the worst mass shooting in Oregon history.

“Are you a Christian? Stand up. You’re going to see God in about one second,” Stacy Boylan was quoting as saying by several media outlets.

Boylan posted remarks on his Facebook page earlier this week, saying : “I have the utmost respect for the highest office in our country, and arguably, the hardest job on the planet …

“My decision to be absent from Obama’s visit is solely based on my own principles.”

Chris Mintz, 30, the Army veteran who was in the classroom next to the shooting and who was wounded when he tried to help other students, posted a statement on Facebook earlier this week, after rumors spread that he, too, would not meet with the president for political reasons.

“Everyone assumes so much just by what the TV says,” Mintz posted before being released from Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg on Wednesday. “I never said I was against the president … That being said, I will give no political statements. I only want to heal, along with my community, get back to my life and live as normal as I can. There is much grieving and rebuilding to be done in Roseburg, and my focus is on that. “I HAVE NO POLITICAL SIDE IN ANY OF THIS.” And won’t answer questions of any political type.”

It was unclear Friday afternoon whether Mintz attended the meeting with the president.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkBakerRG . Email mark.baker@registerguard.com .