By Bernie Woodall and Roberta Rampton
ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) – President Barack Obama arrived in Orlando on Thursday to meet with survivors of the massacre at a gay nightclub and relatives of the 49 people killed, as the attack prompted the U.S. Senate to move toward voting on gun control measures.
Reprising the role of consoler in chief that he has played following periodic mass shootings since he took office in 2009, Obama flew to Orlando with Vice President Joe Biden.
Sunday’s attack, in which 53 people were also wounded, ranks as the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
“The president believes that there’s no more tangible way to show support than by traveling to the city where this horrific incident occurred,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters on Air Force One en route from Washington. “He’ll be standing with the citizens of Orlando during this difficult time, during this path of recovery.”
Gunman Omar Mateen, 29, a U.S. citizen born in New York to Afghan immigrants, pledged allegiance during his rampage to Islamic State and other Islamist militant groups.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack but U.S. officials have said they do not believe Mateen was assisted from abroad. CIA Director John Brennan told a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday that the agency had “not been able to uncover any direct link” between Mateen, who was shot dead by police, and foreign militants.
Orlando began to mourn the dead after what was also the worst attack in America on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Wakes were under way for at least three victims: Kimberly Morris, Anthony Luis Laureano Disla and Roy Fernandez.
Twenty-three of the wounded remained hospitalized, six of whom are in critical condition, according to Orlando Regional Medical Center.
During his attack, Mateen also posted messages on Facebook.
One message, apparently referring to air strikes by the United States and allies on Islamic State, said: “You kill innocent women and children by doing us air strikes … now taste the Islamic State vengeance,” according to a letter to Facebook <FB.O> from the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security. The letter sought more information on Mateen’s history on the social media network.
Mateen carried out the slaughter with an assault weapon and handgun that had been legally purchased although he had twice been investigated in the past by the FBI for possible connections with militant Islamist groups.
RENEWED DEBATE ON GUN CONTROL
In denouncing the attack as both an act of terrorism and a hate crime, Obama has reiterated his frustration over the easy availability of guns in America and the failure of Congress to pass any gun control measures in more than two decades.
The massacre put pressure on Congress to act.
After marathon speeches by Democrats on Wednesday and into the early hours of Thursday, a Democratic senator said Republicans had agreed to hold votes on measures to expand background checks and prevent people on U.S. terrorism watch lists from buying guns.
No formal deal between the parties for votes was announced, and it was unclear exactly when and how the Senate would proceed with the votes, which would be amendments to an appropriations bill funding the commerce and justice departments. Even if votes are now scheduled, it is not clear whether any of the bills can gain enough support to pass the Senate.
Republicans, who currently hold a 54-person majority in the 100-seat Senate, have blocked a number of Democratic-backed gun control measures over the years, saying they infringe on Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms. Some Republican gun control measures – deemed insufficient by Democrats – have also failed to pass.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump also joined the gun debate, announcing on Wednesday he would meet with the National Rifle Association to talk about barring people who are on terrorism watch lists from buying guns.
House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, expressed caution.
“As we look at how to proceed, we also want to make sure that we are not infringing on people’s legitimate constitutional rights. That’s important,” Ryan told reporters on Thursday. “We also want to make sure that someone who’s not supposed to get a gun doesn’t get a gun.”
(Additional reporting by Julia Harte and Peter Eisler in Orlando, Patricia Zengerle and Jonathan Landay in Washington and Zachary Fagenson in West Palm Beach, Florida; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Frances Kerry and Leslie Adler)