NEWTOWN, Connecticut (Reuters) - President Barack Obama assigned Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday to find ways to curtail gun violence in America and try to avoid tragedies like the elementary school massacre in Connecticut, where the town buried one of its heroes on Wednesday.
With Newtown still in mourning from last Friday’s shooting, when a 20-year-old gunman shot dead 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School and then himself, Biden took the assignment to produce recommendations and report back to Obama in time for the president’s State of the Union address in late January.
Obama’s initiative addressed national outrage over the shootings in Connecticut, which have prompted longtime gun-rights supporters to reconsider their positions and a major private equity firm to put its gun-making business up for sale.
Funerals or wakes were held for four of Newtown’s children on Wednesday, as well as the school principal. Teacher Victoria Soto, who is credited with saving half her class of 6- and 7-year-olds by diverting the shooter and hiding the children in a closet, was also laid to rest.
“Vicki achieved in her 27 years what many of us will never achieve if we live to be a hundred,” the Reverend Meg Boxwell Williams told the funeral service. “Her last act was absolutely selfless, Christ-like, laying down her life for her children.”
Gunman Adam Lanza, 20, shot his mother at home and then killed 20 children and six adults at the school before shooting himself in the head, officials said.
Soto hid her students in a closet when she heard the shooting start early Friday morning, and when Lanza entered Soto’s classroom she tried to throw him off by telling him the students were at the other end of the school in an auditorium, the Hartford Courant reported, citing unnamed law-enforcement officials.
Lanza shot six of the children when they tried to run, and police later found the remaining seven students still hiding in the closet, the Courant said. Those children told law enforcement officials what had happened, the Courant reported.
The account provided Newtown with a positive story to cling to following the horrible events that left the nation stunned.
Soto’s death “mixed with the glad knowledge that her sacrifice saved so many children,” Williams said.
Some 30 police motorcycles from surrounding towns led the hearse carrying Soto’s body to the service in Stratford, Connecticut. About 200 mourners lined the streets outside the church, including a mother and daughter from Maryland who never met Soto but made the long drive because they were touched by her bravery in trying to protect the children in her class.
The family of the school’s slain principal, Dawn Hochsprung, invited mourners to visit a local funeral home on Wednesday. Her burial was due to be private at an undisclosed time.
Hundreds braved a bitter wind to pay their respects to the fallen principal, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
After the service for Daniel Barden, 7, a bagpiper played “America the Beautiful,” as hundreds of police officers and firefighters, some from New York City and distant towns, stood in formation outside.
The little boy loved his family, riding waves at the beach, playing drums, foosball, reading and making s‘mores around a bonfire at his grandfather’s house, said an obituary in the Newtown Bee newspaper.
Funerals were also held for for Charlotte Bacon and Caroline Previdi, both 6, and a wake for Chase Kowalski, 7.
The massacre prompted some Republican lawmakers to open the door to a national debate about gun control.
That may give an opening to Obama, who said he hoped the National Rifle Association gun lobby would reflect on the tragedy as it awaits Biden’s recommendations.
“The vast majority of responsible law-abiding gun owners would be some of the first to say that we should be able to keep an irresponsible, law-breaking few from buying a weapon of war,” Obama said.
Connecticut’s U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal and Senator-elect Chris Murphy met on Wednesday evening with a group of about 40 Newtown residents who are pushing for strengthened gun control and calling themselves Newtown United.
Blumenthal said, as he asks people in town if there is anything he can do, they tell him: “Yes. Do something about guns.”
Additional reporting by Edith Honan and Mark Felsenthal; Writing by Barbara Goldberg and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Christopher Wilson and Todd Eastham