Carlo Allegri / Reuters
Scarlett Lewis, mother of Sandy Hook victim Jesse Lewis, speaks at a public hearing on gun control at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn., on Wednesday, Jan. 30.
NEWTOWN, Conn. - One after another, Newtown residents stepped to the microphone and urged Connecticut lawmakers to stop another tragedy like the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and take action, such as banning high-powered, military style rifles and high-capacity magazines.
While a General Assembly bipartisan task force heard Wednesday from some residents concerned about their Second Amendment rights, the vast majority of the several hundred people who turned out for the public hearing — including parents of children killed at Sandy Hook and local officials — appeared to support greater gun control.
"Make this the time that change happens. Don't give up because it's too hard or too difficult. Make a promise to honor the lives lost at Sandy Hook and elsewhere in America by turning this tragedy into the moment of transformation that benefits us all," said Nicole Hockley. Her 6-year-old son, Dylan, was among those killed by 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who fatally shot his mother in their home before driving to the school to carry out the massacre before killing himself.
Jennifer Killin, a Newtown mother, said there's a national misconception that Newtown residents want to repeal the Second Amendment. Rather, she said, Newtown residents want to protect people's rights while also protecting children and their safety.
"It's in everyone's best interest to work together," she said, receiving loud applause from the crowd.
Bill Sherlach, whose wife, Mary, a school psychologist, died in the rampage, said he respects the Second Amendment but it was written in a long-ago era where armaments were different.
"I have no idea how long it took to reload and refire a musket," he said. "I do know that the number of shots fired in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in those few short minutes is almost incomprehensible, even in today's modern age."
Wednesday's hearing was in sharp contrast to a legislative subcommittee hearing held Monday at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford on gun laws, which lasted hours into the night and attracted hundreds of gun rights activists statewide. Many in the crowd at the Newtown High School auditorium, the site where President Barack Obama addressed residents after the shooting, wore stickers urging gun law changes.
Many voiced support for more background checks, annual gun permit renewals and increased availability of mental health services.
Michael Majeski of Newtown called it a "kneejerk reaction" to the shooting by focusing on gun laws. Rather, he said, they need to address mental illness, pointing out how the state has closed a nearby psychiatric hospital.
"If there is any commonsense or wisdom among the members of this committee, I would humbly ask you to focus on the underlying causes of these murders and not these symptoms," he said.
David Wheeler, whose 6-year-old son, Benjamin, was killed at Sandy Hook, said a more comprehensive system of identifying and monitoring individuals with mental distress needs to be created.
"That a person with these problems could live in a home where he had access to among the most powerful firearms available to non-military personnel is unacceptable," he said. "It doesn't matter to whom these weapons were registered. It doesn't matter if they were purchased legally. What matters is that it was far too easy for another mentally unbalanced, suicidal person who had violent obsessions to have easy access to unreasonably powerful weapons."
But Newtown resident Casey Khan warned that further restrictions on gun rights leave "good and lawful citizens at risk."
Parents of survivors in attendance, too
The public hearing was organized by the General Assembly's task force on gun violence prevention and children's safety. Lawmakers hope to vote on a package of new measures around the end of February.
One mother spoke of how her daughter survived the shooting.
Susie Ehrens said her daughter, Emma, escaped from Sandy Hook with a group of other first-graders when the shooter paused. She said Emma saw her friends and teacher slaughtered before she ran past lifeless bodies and half a mile down the road.
"The fact that my daughter survived and others didn't haunts me. That a spot where they were standing at that moment decided their fate that day, when evil (that) could have been stopped walked into their classrooms," Ehrens said.
Mary Ann Jacob, a Sandy Hook teacher, recalled hearing "hundreds of hundreds of gunshots that seemed to last forever" and crawling across the floor with 18 children to hide from the shooter.
Some in the audience didn't testify but said they felt it was important to attend.
Trish Keil and her twin sister, Helen Malyszka, two music teachers in Sandy Hook who knew many of the slain children, said they believe the tragedy will lead to change and won't be forgotten. Both support more gun control measures.
"I think it happened in Newtown for a reason, and I think there is going to be major change because Newtown will not stand by and let this go," Keil said. "This is just, it's too horrific. When it's starting to affect our children, something has to be done and it's going to change."