Strong emotions as Obama visits grieving Oregon town

Michael Johnson waits outside of Roseburg Municipal Airport for President Barack Obama's arrival in Roseburg, Ore., Friday, Oct. 9, 2015. Gun-rights activists say they plan to protest when Obama visits here Friday to meet with families of victims of last week's college shooting rampage. They are angry about Obama's call for more gun restrictions after the killing of eight students and a teacher. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)

ROSEBURG, Ore. (AP) — Gun-rights activists and others gave voice to strong emotions on Friday when President Barack Obama came to meet privately with grieving families whose loved ones were killed on a college campus in Roseburg, Oregon.

Many residents were angry over the call for more gun restrictions the president made soon after last week’s shooting.

However, there were also Obama supporters among the people waiting behind a security fence near the airport to catch a glimpse of the president.

They included two men on bicycles — Phil Benedetti and John Poole.

“I want to support our president,” said Benedetti, a Roseburg physician. “This isn’t about gun control, it’s about caring about the welfare of the small town and every small town when tragedy happens.”

He said he owns several guns for hunting and chasing deer from his garden but believes assault weapons shouldn’t be available to the general public.

More than 200 gun-rights activists also gathered outside Roseburg airport — some carrying holstered handguns.

“I’m here to tell Obama he is not welcome in our county. He is exploiting the local tragedy with his gun control agenda,” said Bruce Rester, a retired truck driver who was wearing a handgun in a holster over his chest.

“Everybody should carry a gun. An armed society is a polite society,” he added.

As Roseburg buries its dead, it’s also trying to heal. The complexities of residents’ emotions were reflected in the signs that are everywhere around the community — at fast-food places, cafes and churches.

Some have messages like “Pray for UCC” and “UCC Strong.”

The signs refer to Umpqua Community College, where Christopher Harper-Mercer killed eight students and a teacher before turning the gun on himself after a shootout with police.

Billie McMillian, a business owner from Eagle Point who attended the protest with her husband, said they came to support the families of the victims and because they didn’t agree with the president.

“We support the Second Amendment. It’s our God-given right to protect ourselves,” she said.

Protesters also carried signs voicing support for Sheriff John Hanlin, who has been highly visible during press conferences about the college shooting.

Oregon School Shooting
Photos: Shooting at Umpqua Community College »

Three years ago, after 20 children and six adults were shot dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Hanlin sent a letter to Vice President Joe Biden saying he would not enforce any new gun legislation he deemed to be unconstitutional.

Poole, a retired property developer from Klamath Falls, said he too believes in the Second Amendment right to carry arms but also supports “rational, common sense gun laws.”

Funerals for the nine victims of Harper-Mercer have been held throughout the week, and more were scheduled in the days ahead.

The college reopened Monday and counselors have been on campus to help students, faculty and staff deal with the trauma that all of Roseburg is feeling. Grief counselors are also available at nonprofits.

During his visit to Roseburg, the president met with leaders of the community college to express his thanks and condolences.

Obama made no public appearances during his visit to the city. It was not known what he told the families of those killed in the campus killings.

Just before leaving Roseburg, he told a small group of reporters: “We’re going to have to come together as a country, but today is about the families.”

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