The fatal shooting of eight worshippers and a pastor at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday provoked strong reactions from political, church and civil rights leaders and was held up by gun control advocates as another example of lax laws leading to tragedy.
President Barack Obama decried the shooting as a senseless tragedy and said he was particularly heartbroken that it happened in a house of worship — a place where people seek peace and solace.
Obama said he and his wife, Michelle, knew slain pastor Clementa Pinckney and members of Emanuel AME Church, a congregation that historically has withstood fierce segregation and violence over its work to end slavery.
Lamenting yet another mass shooting, Obama called for a shift in thinking on gun violence and gun control.
"At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries," Obama said. "It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it."
Vice President Joe Biden, who attended a prayer breakfast with Pinckney last year, called the deaths the "senseless actions of a coward."
"As a nation, we must confront the ravages of gun violence and the stain of hatred that continues to be visited on our streets, in our schools, in our houses of worship, and in our communities," Biden said.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the killings had "reached into the heart" of the community. She said the Justice Department would investigate the shooting as a hate crime and said it would do all it could to help Charleston heal.
U.S. Rep. G. K. Butterfield, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, called the shooting inexcusable and intolerable. The Democrat from North Carolina said it was difficult to comprehend that "a house of worship known for joy and tolerance could become a scene of hate and tragedy."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned what authorities are considering a hate crime and extended his deep condolences to the loved ones of the victims "and his solidarity to the survivors," U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said. "He hopes the person or persons responsible for this hateful act of violence will be swiftly brought to justice."
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, fighting back tears, said, "The heart and soul of South Carolina was broken."
The Republican governor said the shooting did not reflect the good nature of the people of her state. But she added: "If this can happen in church, we've got some praying to do. If there's one thing we can do in South Carolina, it's pray."
"We are a state of faith, we are a state of prayer, we are a state of love," she said.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, a Democrat, said the storied Emanuel AME Church was even more sacred "because of the lives lost in it while in prayer."
He said people would look back at the massacre "as a time when love and goodness came together to overcome evil."
Faizan Syed, executive director of the St. Louis chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, urged his fellow Americans to come together to resolve social divisions.
"As Americans, we must unite to condemn this heinous act and demand that our elected officials address the growing divisions within our society," Syed said. "We stand with our friends in the African American community and hope that law enforcement authorities do everything in their power to prevent further attacks."
The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a Washington, D.C., gun control advocacy group, blamed the shooting on a "degenerate gun culture that continues to enable these uniquely American horrors."
Gun Owners of America, a pro-gun lobbying group, argued that worshippers at the Emanuel AME Church could have stopped the attack if they were armed.
"The President wants to blame an inanimate object — the gun," the organization said in a statement. "But that just deflects blame away from the real culprit: gun control policies that leave people defenseless in the face of evil perpetrators who are never effectively prevented from acquiring weapons."
The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence said that kind of thinking places blame on the victims.
The Rev. John Richard Bryant, a senior bishop in the AME church, told a Charleston prayer service the gunman had committed an act of terrorism, but the community would unite and ultimately come out stronger.
"The purpose of terrorists is to bring confusion, division, fear and — most destructive — hopelessness," Bryant said. "The young man picked the wrong place."
The Rev. Al Sharpton, whose National Action Network in New York worked closely with Pinckney, asked: "What has our society come to when people in a prayer meeting in the sacred halls of a church can be shot in what is deemed a possible hate crime?"
NAACP President Cornell William Brooks said his organization was "horrified by the blood curdling heinousness" of the massacre.
"The coward who murdered nine parishioners in a church set a new and depraved standard of inhumanity," Brooks said. "We, as Americans, by our resolve, determination, and commitment, through our faith, will set an infinitely higher standard of humanity."
Churches in Minnesota held vigils to remember the fatal shooting.
In St. Paul, the Saint James A.M.E. Church delayed a Sunday school convention to hold a Thursday afternoon vigil in its sanctuary. The pastor, the Rev. Stacey Smith, told KARE-TV the shooting "is not just something that happened to one of our churches, this happened to all of us."
In Minneapolis, the Minnesota Council of Churches held an interfaith vigil, denouncing the killings and beginning a conversation about what can be done in a divided nation.
One of the largest AME churches in Colorado planned a vigil Thursday night. Pastor Timothy Tyler of the Shorter Community AME Church in Denver said members want to pray for the victims of the shootings in South Carolina and talk about ways they can stay safe.
"This is a symptom of racial issues all over the country," Tyler said, adding that emotions are still running high in the city over allegations of brutality at the Denver County Jail following the death of a black homeless street preacher in 2010.
A report commissioned by the city urged officials in May to find new leadership at the Denver Sheriff Department because of questionable investigations of police brutality.