LEWISTON, Maine - President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden added a bouquet of white flowers Friday to a makeshift memorial outside Schemengees Bar and Grille, one of the scenes of the state's deadliest mass shooting.
They stood for a moment of silence before bending over to hug bar owner Kathy Lebel. Eight people died there in the Oct. 25 massacre, along with seven at the nearby Just-In-Time Recreation bowling alley. Three others died at hospitals.
Biden came to Lewiston to do what presidents do in these moments of horror and grief; lend comfort to the families of the victims and to show support for a reeling community. But it's a type of trip that has become all too familiar, despite a bipartisan gun safety law passed last year after another mass shooting, and despite a series of executive orders by the president meant to stop gun violence.
"Too many times the president and first lady have traveled to communities completely torn apart by gun violence," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on the eve of the Bidens' trip on Friday. "We can't accept it as normal."
Besides those killed, 13 people were injured in the shootings.
Police stand out outside of Schemengees Bar and Grille, Lewiston, ME on Thursday, October 26, 2023. The establishment was the site of a mass shooting last night (David McGlynn for Fox News Digital)
Joni Ramos of Lewiston spent part of the day tying ribbons to poles in tribute to the victims, and in the hope Biden would see them.
"We are in high hopes that he will see all of the ribbons that we have around the community to see how strong of an impact this has had on us and how important it is to have him in the community at this time," Ramos said.
The Democratic president has said he's determined to fight gun violence in the U.S. He created the first White House office of gun violence prevention, which is charged with finding solutions and fully implementing landmark gun safety legislation enacted last year. He's also pushing for a ban on so-called assault weapons.
The president has already visited other communities scarred by mass shootings. He's been to Buffalo, New York; Uvalde, Texas; and Monterey Park, California, just in roughly the past year.
"There are too many other schools, too many other everyday places that have become killing fields, battlefields here in America," Biden said during a speech on gun violence last year.
As of Friday, there have been at least 37 mass killings in the U.S. in 2023, leaving at least 195 people dead, not including shooters who died, according to a database maintained by The Associated Press and USA Today in partnership with Northeastern University.
Members of the community visited the memorial outside Schemengees to grieve throughout the morning. Biden’s arrival could help the city, but it’s terrible that it has to happen at all, said John Murphy, of New Gloucester, who went to the memorial to pay his respects.
Murphy, 70, said he was glad Biden was visiting but added, "I’m sorry that he had to on this occasion."
It will take years for the community to heal, Murphy said.
"It’s going to be a long time. Maine is a beautiful state. A very peaceful state," he said.
There were also memorials paying tribute to victims outside Just-In-Time, the bowling alley where the shootings began. Media and police were assembled near the site. A row of Jack-o-lanterns lined the road leading up to the bowling alley on a chilly, sunny fall day.
The shooting has many residents searching for answers.
Elizabeth Seal, who lost her husband Josh in the Maine shootings, texted about Biden’s visit: "I’d like to see what he has to say to our community."
She said in an interview earlier this week that she was frustrated to learn that semi-automatic weapons were used. "In general, I have no issue with the use of guns," she said through a sign language interpreter. "Some people feel more comfortable having a gun for protection or for some it’s a hunting tradition. But why do we have semi-automatic weapons available that people can get? "That can cause such severe devastation?"
She added: "I don’t see the point. There’s no good reason for that. And so I hope that our lawmakers will do something to change that. I don’t see this problem in other countries, right? This is an American issue."
Overall, stricter gun laws are desired by a majority of Americans, regardless of what the current gun laws are in their state, according to an AP/NORC poll. That desire could be tied to some Americans’ perceptions of what fewer guns could mean for the country — fewer mass shootings.
In Maine, shooter Robert Card, a 40-year-old firearms instructor, was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound after the killings, following a dayslong search. Authorities said this week that his family had brought their concerns about his deteriorating mental health to the local sheriff five months before the deadly rampage. He had also undergone a mental health evaluation after he began behaving erratically at a training facility last summer.
Several thousand people attended vigils for the victims over the weekend, and residents started returning to work and school on Monday after stay-at-home orders were lifted.
Biden was notified of the shooting as he hosted a White House state dinner honoring Australia. He later stepped out of the event to speak by telephone with Maine Gov. Janet Mills and the state’s representatives in Congress.
Mills, a Democrat, said she felt Biden’s arrival in the city would be significant because it shows the country is grieving with Maine, and that the state has the president’s support.
"By visiting us in our time of need, the president and first lady are making clear that the entire nation stands with Lewiston and with Maine — and for that I am profoundly grateful," she said.
Long reported from Washington. Associated Press writer David Sharp in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.