It would be hard to find a place and time that better encapsulate the United States in 2015 than Friday in this tiny timber town 180 miles south of Portland.
President Obama flew in on Marine One shortly after noon on a condolence mission to this grief-stricken community, where he met privately with victims of last week’s mass shooting at Umpqua Community College. Nine dead. Nine injured. “Mourning in Roseburg,” read the headline in Friday’s Register-Guard.
A phalanx of demonstrators waited for the president outside Roseburg Regional Airport, some carrying holstered pistols, most waving signs with similar messages: “United We Stand ... Obama We Fail.” “Can you hear me now? Go Home!” “Don’t Mess With My Guns!”
The president’s visit to Oregon came after a gunman at Northern Arizona University opened fire in the early morning hours on a group of students after a parking lot altercation, leaving one dead and three injured.
Later Friday morning, an assailant outside a Texas Southern University dorm shot a student to death and injured another person.
To Alice Lackey, a retired teacher and longtime Roseburg resident, Friday is Exhibit A for the need to rethink America’s relationship with firearms.
“What we’re doing now is not working,” said Lackey, one of the few demonstrators who showed up to support Obama. “We have to do something to get guns out of the wrong hands. This slaughter has to stop.”
Don Moody, an aircraft machinist who drove five hours from Seattle to wave a sign at Obama’s arrival, couldn’t agree more. “The Second Amendment Protects the First,” read the front of his sign, which was festooned with two tiny American flags. “Trump 2016” was emblazoned on the back.
“It comes down to this,” Moody said. “We don’t want quantity of guns. We want quality of guns — in the right hands at the right time.... I believe the government and the country are going in exactly the wrong direction.”
On Oct. 1, a gunman with six weapons, including a rifle, blasted his way into Snyder Hall at the college here, leaving the dead, wounded and traumatized in his wake. He was shot during a gun battle with police and eventually took his own life.
Just hours afterward, an angry and vehement Obama addressed the nation, urging tighter gun laws.
“As I said just a few months ago, and I said a few months before that, and I said each time we see one of these mass shootings, our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” he said. “It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel. And it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America.”
In Oregon’s Douglas County, hunting is popular, and so are guns. Obama’s mention of gun control on the same day as the college shooting sparked some of the opposition that bubbled in advance of his visit.
David Jaques, publisher of the weekly Roseburg Beacon, told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly on Monday that local officials didn’t want Obama to visit.
The president, he said, gave his news conference before the bodies had been counted. “Now, he wants to come to our community and stand on the corpses of our loved ones to make some kind of political point.”
Afterward, however, city officials said the president was welcome in Roseburg.
“Since the announcement that President Obama may be in the Roseburg area on Friday to meet with the families that lost loved ones at Umpqua Community College, news outlets have been announcing that the president was not welcome in Roseburg. These announcements have included alleged quotes from community leaders,” the city said in a statement.
“Unfortunately, individuals have been claiming to be speaking on behalf of the City of Roseburg. ... We wish to be clear that Mayor [Larry] Rich, City Council President [Tom] Ryan and the Roseburg City Council welcome the president to Roseburg and will extend him every courtesy.”
Sign-carrying demonstrators began taking their places along the tarmac at the airport hours before Obama’s arrival.
As the bright autumn sun beat down on their graying heads, a small group of 60-plus activists struggled with three panels, 4 feet by 8 feet, each with a single word.
The small crowd around them tried to help, but agreement was hard come by. Should the order be “Go Home Obama,” or “Obama Go Home”?
Many said they were spurred by anger at a president they believe took advantage of a tragedy to push an agenda that is anathema to many here in conservative rural Oregon.
Rick Breen, a retired Army veteran, carried two signs. The smaller one said simply, “Go Away.” The larger one rested on the pistol sticking out of his jeans pocket. “We stand with Sheriff Hanlin,” it said, referring to the Douglas County law enforcement leader who is a staunch gun rights supporter.
Advocating for gun rights, Breen said, was the second reason he drove about two hours from Brooks, Ore., to be here. The main reason, he said, was “to let Obama know he’s not welcome here.”
“It viscerally offended me that he uses something like this,” the shooting at the college, “to pursue his own ulterior motives — destroying this country, undermining America,” said the 62-year-old Breen, who bought his first gun at 16 with money from his paper route.
The president met with survivors of the massacre and family members whose lives were torn apart. They told him, Obama said in brief remarks afterward, that they want everyone to know how much they appreciate the “help, thoughts and prayers” that have come their way since.
And he promised Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who appeared at Roseburg High School with him, that he would do anything he could at the federal level to help the town.
“I’ve obviously got very strong feelings about this,” he said, adding that the nation must find a way to keep such violence from occurring so often. After talking with the families of victims, Obama said, “you’re reminded that this could be happening to your child, or your mom, or your dad, or your relative, or your friend.”
But action, he said, must wait for another day.
“We’re going to have to come together as a country,” he said. “But today is about the families.”