Drizzle fell on a line of residents Wednesday, some waiting nearly an hour to attend or speak at a public hearing of the legislature’s Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety. As cars streamed into the Newtown High School lot, residents Jan Neuberger and her husband Bob Carter touted signs demanding safer gun laws.
It turned out that the couple’s sentiment would be shared by a majority of speakers who plaintively and forcefully demanded that lawmakers craft and deliver common sense gun control measures, programs to better identify and help individuals with potential mental health issues, and ways to prevent individuals prone to violence access to the most destructive military-grade weaponry that wreaked so much destruction at Sandy Hook Elementary School on 12/14.
The school’s auditorium began filling up during the 90-minute sign-up period as task force members from throughout the state — including Representatives DebraLee Hovey (R-112), Mitch Bolinsky (R-106), and Dan Carter of Bethel (R-2) — seated themselves onstage.
Broadcast media crews continued prodding residents for thoughts, including one cameraman and reporter speaking with Jim Knapp as he sat with his family, waiting for the hearing to start. And the arrival of several key officials like First Selectman Pat Llodra and Police Chief Michael Kehoe brought those in attendance to their feet applauding.
As the hearing commenced, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Don Williams told the crowd, “We have come to hear from those who can help us as policymakers.”
“The leaders of the state legislature want to respond in a thoughtful way that transcends politics,” Sen Williams said.
Republican House Leader Lawrence Cafero added, “Our job is to listen.”
Democratic Speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey recalled his last visit to Newtown High School to hear President Barack Obama comfort the community just two days after the deadly rampage that took the lives of 20 first graders and seven adults.
“I think I can speak for all members of the legislature regardless of party or house when I say we feel your pain,” Rep Sharkey said.
The crowd, which nearly filled the auditorium by the 6 pm start time, also stood applauding as David Wheeler, Bill Sherlach, Nicole and Ian Hockley, Neil Heslin, and Scarlett Lewis spoke of the family members they lost on 12/14.
These survivors expressed heartbreaking sentiments: “This should have never happened”; “The right to own guns is second to my son’s right to life”; “I hope to God this never happens again.” They also appealed to the legislators to “do what is right and choose common sense.”
Make A Change
First to speak was Mrs Llodra, who received a second and lingering standing ovation from the stage and audience.
“Many of you began your careers of service at the local level,” she said. “This task force is very important — help us make a better Connecticut.”
Mrs Llodra said the horror of the killings Newtown suffered on 12/14 left many saying this is the time to make a change. She said that in the weeks since the massacre, many have made the point that it is easier to get assault weapons than to get help for individuals touched by mental health issues.
She also implored the task force to learn what to do to improve school safety — “and then let’s do it.”
Selectman James Gaston identified himself as a gun owner who learned how to handle weapons from the Police Athletic League. He told the task force, however, that there is no reason for civilians to have access to high powered weapons or extended ammunition magazines.
Mr Gaston also recognized Connecticut’s federal elected delegation for their work in Washington, and reading from the Second Amendment, said stronger firearms regulations “is not an infringement, it is a responsibility.”
Police Chief Michael Kehoe said the task force, the state, and the nation must define the problem to solve the problem. “I’m convinced it is a violence problem,” he said. “We must strengthen security on schools, but it is not an antibiotic for what ails us. If enough is not done, we will see this scene repeated in our communities.”
The local police chief said it is time to sacrifice portions of what gun owners may see as entitlements, to improve society as a whole. Chief Kehoe suggested lawmakers create the means to release mental health information to law enforcement if it could help prevent possible tragedy without stigmatizing individuals suffering with those issues.
He implored them to help develop the best mental care in the world and more comprehensive anti-violence strategies for young children while reducing easy access to military-style assault weapons.
“The sacrifice is necessary and certainly warranted,” Chief Kehoe concluded.
Tom Kuroski of the Newtown Federation of Teachers told the task force that on 12/14, “we lost our sense of security.” And he asked going forward that “all of us have seats at the table during discussions about school security.”
Turn The Tide
Scarlett Lewis asked in memory of her late son, Jesse, that everyone change an angry thought into a loving thought every day. “Together we can turn this tragedy into the event that turned the tide.”
Bill Sherlach, whose wife died in the shootings, said he has a deep respect for the Constitution and the Second Amendment. He also pointed out that school and community mental health providers have been cut while the amount of regulation has increased.
“That means more time doing paperwork than helping people,” Mr Sherlach said.
David Wheeler said it is unacceptable that military-style weapons were accessible to an unstable suicidal individual.
“This is where you must focus your efforts. Identify guns and individuals who may pose a threat while leaving their self-respect and dignity intact,” Mr Wheeler said, suggesting lawmakers establish a database to show where these individuals and access to firearms could intersect.
Susan Ehrens, whose daughter survived the shootings, asked, “Is the list of massacres not long enough yet?”
“We stopped being something we can be proud of when we love our guns more than we love our children,” she told the task force. “Make every decision like it was your child who did not make it out of the school that day.”
Brad Green, representing the upcoming February 14 March for Change, said no one without a legitimate purpose needs a high-powered assault weapon or high capacity magazines.
“We’re looking for state officials to lead the nation,” he said. “We trust you will choose common sense.”
Michelle Ku pointed out that “there are gun owners who intend to be responsible, but make mistakes and bad decisions. The cost of those bad decisions are human lives,” she added.
Peter Paradis, who lost his daughter Rachel on 12/14, said he is a gun owner who believes part of the problem involves gun owners who are not educated about what to do with firearms.
At the same time, Mr Paradis acknowledged that “We don’t need 30-round clips to kill a deer, and we don’t need AR-style weapons to go target shooting.”
‘Hundreds Of Gunshots’
Sandy Hook School library staffer Mary Ann Jacob recalled seeing Victoria Soto just minutes before “we lost 26 members of our family.” She also described the horror of hearing what seemed like “hundreds and hundreds of gunshots that seemed to last forever.”
Casey Khan told the task force he served in the Marines and grew up in a gun culture. He said he understands that some high capacity gun and clip owners believe those military-style weapons can provide a means of repelling a home assault by multiple assailants.
He said the fear of being outgunned is “not ridiculous for those who reside in inner cities, or along the US-Mexico border.”
“It’s unfair to ask someone to give up their right to protect their families. The lawless do not observe gun control laws and restrictions,” Mr Kahn said.
Among the first responders to speak was Redding Police Chief Douglas Fuchs, who presented numerous recommendations tied to gun ownership, carry permits, licensing, and possession of assault weapons. He also recommended that everyone buy something green in memory of 12/14 and the Sandy Hook School community, and “keep it on you.”
Newtown Ambulance responder Laurie Veillette told the task force, “Don’t let the perfect storm of mental illness and unfettered access to weaponry ever happen again.”
Newtown resident and Danbury Hospital emergency physician Dr William Begg reminded the lawmakers that there is a 25 times greater chance that a gun owner will be killed by their own gun, than by an intruder.
“Let us do some gun research that is meaningful, from the gun owner side,” Dr Begg stressed. “And I’m not asking you to add mental health services, just don’t cut any more.”
Work Through Rhetoric
Rabbi Shaul Praver asked the task force, “What’s the logic for not having universal background checks?”
Joyce Murty demanded task force members work through the rhetoric. “Have the courage to do what’s right, what’s sensible, what’s progressive. Do we want our children to grow up in a world with more guns or less guns?”
Former Newtown lawmaker Julia Wasserman told her former colleagues to use existing budget funds to form a permanent commission to include staff of state agencies, DHMAS, Public Health, Public Safety, Program Review, and others to monitor federal strategies and promote a better understanding of the social implications of violence in our culture.
“Let Connecticut be a leader,” Ms Wasserman stated.
Miranda Pacciana, a mental health professional, said the nation and state have not replaced the services once enjoyed by the mentally ill.
“We need to see changes making mental health care available to every child and parent who is afraid,” Ms Pacciana said.
Jackie Villa proved one of the strongest opponents to gun control legislation, telling the task force, “You look to strip millions of law-abiding citizens’ rights. I’m here today to beg you to not take some of the God-given rights from me that were stripped away from you and your loved ones.”
Mary Burnham said she was concerned focus and fixes will be for the K–12, but said those in the birth to age 5 category must be part of the fixes.
“Every child should have access to mental health services, especially early childhood,” she said. “Prevention is better than intervention.”
Peter Muckell told officials it was time to make a change. He said at one time the tobacco industry was invincible, and “if we banned smoking in restaurants they would go out of business. But now they are more enjoyable.”
Help All Children
Andrew Morosky said his child had nightmares about a school shooting even though she did not attend Sandy Hook School. “These are the things we’re dealing with as parents outside of Sandy Hook,” he said.
Jennifer Killin said, “We are not here to take away the Second Amendment. Our intent is to reduce gun violence. Look at existing gun control laws that work.”
Susan Boritz, a therapist from Sandy Hook, said 12/14 was unavoidable. She said for too long youth mental health issues have been “dismissed and masked.”
She also noted that every one of her clients has been traumatized by the shootings. “Marriages are impacted, parents are having problems parenting.” And she warned that the “circle of traumatization will be deeper, wider, longer,” as a result of 12/14. “This is going to be a long haul.”
Stacey Zimmerman, a Sandy Hook resident and gun owner, asked the lawmakers to fund programs adequately to get people access to safety nets they need, and to institute long-term assistance for first responders.
Nearing midnight and the conclusion of the hearing, resident Paul D’Agostino talked about the difference seatbelts made after states took the lead in enforcing legislation in the 1960s after a rapidly escalating number of motor vehicle deaths. And he urged the lawmakers to consider how many lives have been saved despite the long-term auto safety initiatives that were once thought impossible to accomplish.
“This is our seatbelt moment,” Mr D’Agostino said.