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Emotional Testimony Sets Tone of Newtown Hearing

A debate on gun control took center stage in residents' comments during Wednesday night's legislative hearing.

On Dec. 14, Mary Ann Jacob was at work at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"The day started like any other day," she said. "Vicki Soto came in the library first thing in the morning to pick out books she could use in her classes that day, bemoaning the fact she'd spilled coffee all down the front."

As she described the events of that day, her voice trembled as she told listeners that automatic weapons had no place in communities — and that more guns couldn't have stopped what happened. 

"Make no mistake," she said. "If there was a police officer in that building, he'd be dead."

Redding Police Chief Douglas Fuchs, a Newtown resident who sent his children to Sandy Hook School, was on his way to Hartford when he heard radio transmissions involving an "active shooter response." 

Fuchs said he never understood how those weapons could have ended up in that school in the first place.

"No one has yet been able to make a cogent argument as to why anyone other than a police officer or member of the military needs the ability to fire so many bullets without reloading."

Meanwhile, Andre Nikitchyuk's son was walking the halls as a classroom helper when a teacher pulled him into her classroom, saving his life.

"I used to be part of the silent majority that saw how weaponized society had become," said Nikitchyuk, adding matter-of-factly, "I want the Connecticut Legislature to ban these [weapons]."

Teacher Tom Swetts was conducting a class at Newtown High School. As he reached the front door, a security guard stopped him.

"They told me it was a lockdown," he said. "And it was real." Swetts eventually realized he had once taught the shooter.

A Community Speaks

On Wednesday night, town officials, parents, teachers, first responders and many other residents from Sandy Hook and across Newtown had a chance to share their thoughts and ideas with lawmakers.

The Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children's Safety  was formed to consider legislative change in the wake of the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that claimed the life of 20 first graders and six educators.

Made up of 48 lawmakers from across Connecticut, the task force is focusing on school safety, mental health and gun violence. The hearing at Newtown High School, in which 84 residents signed up to speak, was the final scheduled hearing for the group.

"My hope is that with your help and the thoughts and suggestions you and hundreds of others make, we can work together to make our communities, our state and our country safer," said State Senate President Donald Williams.

Jacob, Fuchs and Swetts had a chance to make suggestions — along with Newtown residents ranging from First Selectman Pat Llodra to activists, parents and concerned citizens.

For Swetts — the teacher and manager for the auditorium in which the event was hosted — he's sure of one thing.

If teachers had to carry guns, "I would quit tomorrow."

"Not later. Now."

"Now is the time," said First Selectman Pat Llodra. "This time is different. This time our governments will act. Controversy and conflict surrounds the question of what the government's action should be ... I can listen to the opposing points of view and I even find some merit."

But Llodra took the opportunity to make her opinions known to the committee.

"I cannot agree that weapons such as the Bushmaster have any role in a society that seeks to keep our citizens safe," she said. "I bewail a society in which weapons of considerable firepower are easier to access for many than access to basic mental health care for those in need."

Llodra's colleague, Newtown Selectman Jim Gaston, introduced himself as a gun owner and NRA member.

"I own rifles and my children and I enjoy shooting," he said. "But I can assure you there is absolutely no reason civilians need to have or should have access to high powered assault weapons or mega-magazines."

Like Llodra, he called for quick and specific action.

"Meaningful gun legislation, I suggest, is merited now," he said. "Not later. Now."

Newtown Police Chief Michael Kehoe, vocal in his endorsement of an assault rifle ban, went further with a six-point list that called for changes including mental health reform and increased security at schools. 

"Certainly we must strengthen security in schools but it's not the antibiotic for curing what ails us," he said. "It's the Band-Aid on the wound ... We have become a society tied to entitlements. When these freedoms are the cause of enormous pain for Americans that we've felt over the past several years ... Then it's time to sacrifice -- I repeat, sacrifice -- portions of these entitlements to change the problem in society."

Gun Control Remains at Center Stage

Most commenters came back to questions of to what extent weapons -- especially assault weapons -- should be legislated. Casey Kahn, a father of a Sandy Hook student, said he "hoped" he could defend keeping weapons like AR-15s legal.

"Military weapons, and weapons with high-capacity magazines, can provide an effective means of repelling a home assault engaged by multiple assailants," he said. "While on its face it might sound ridiculous for those of us who live in wealthy, upper-middle-class areas like Newtown to have the capacity to repel such an assault, it's not ridiculous for those who live amongst the dangers of the inner cities ... and it is not ridiculous for those who live amongst violence on the U.S.-Mexico border."

Others were wary of legislation they saw as contrary to their Second Amendment rights.

"I'm opposed to a false sense of security at the expense of the rights enshrined in this document, the constitution," said resident Bill Stevens. "From our history class, we're supposed to know these rights are inalienable ... It's my choice, my right as a husband and a father to be equipped and prepared to take care of my family. I'm saddened as a veteran to have to be here speaking on home soil in defense of our fundamental rights as Americans. As neighbors, as Newtown and as a nation, we're better than that."

As members of March for Change — a group dedicated to advocating for "safe gun laws" — flooded the speaking area, several representatives addressed lawmakers.

"As always, there is a choice," said Brad Green, a Newtown resident and group member. "You can cower in fear from the gun rights organizations who are determined to preserve the status quo and protect the gun industry, or you can look into the faces of those standing around me and the thousands more like them in your constituencies ...We trust you will choose common sense."

Later, resident Tom Maurath told lawmakers he saw a "well-organized" group of gun activists when he attended the hearing in Hartford.

"I am a gun owner," he said. "But this tragedy was a tipping point for me."

He asked lawmakers to consider similar measures — an assault weapons ban, and background checks — as other speakers had requested. In many cases, requests were similar to those made by President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats. 

"Let's have Newtown and Connecticut lead the way for this country to make it safer for our families," said Maurath.

Victims' Families Offer Legislators 'Choice' for a Better World

Scarlett Lewis' son Jesse was one of the victims in the Dec. 14 shooting. She described how her son loved rubber ducks and toy soldiers.

"I think about kissing his sleeping cheek all the time," she said. Her concern about the anger in the world drowning out the love led her to launch the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Fund. She said she hoped others would make the same choice.

"This choice between anger and love is a choice we make when we wake up every morning," she said.

Other parents offered a starker choice. Neil Heslin — Jesse Lewis's father, who spoke at the panel's gun violence hearing in Hartford Monday — repeated a question he'd asked there: why should anyone own an assault rifle?

"Maybe [it could be used for] deer management," he said Wednesday. "You could take out 26 deer in a matter of minutes. No sportsmanship in that. No challenge to it. There's no need for hunters to have weapons like that."

"Let's honor the founding documents and get our priorities straight," said David Wheeler, the father of 6-year-old Benjamin, one of the young shooting victims. He said it was far too easy for "another mentally unbalanced suicidal person who had violent obsessions to have access to unreasonably powerful weapons."

"I have a deep respect for the second amendment," said Bill Sherlach, whose wife Mary, the school psychologist, died in the shooting. But like many other speakers, he said his respect for the amendment didn't preclude his belief in "sanity" when it came to gun laws.

"Personal defense, whether from a tyrannical government or home invasion, are two main arguments of the gun lobby. I don't understand them," he said, to applause from the crowd. "I have no idea how long it took to reload and refire a musket, but [I] do know that the number of shots fired in Sandy Hook Elementary School in those short minutes is incomprehensible, even in today's modern age."

However victims' family members felt about legislation, they reminded lawmakers that their decisions could ultimately make the world a better place.

Nicole Hockley's son Dylan was another child who lost his life in Sandy Hook on Dec. 14. One week later — the day of Dylan's burial — she looked at her calendar and saw that she had jokingly marked that day the 'End of the World,' in reference to the '2012 Mayan Apocalypse' fad.

"I don't believe that day was the end of the world, but the start of something new," she said.

"I don't profess to know what all the changes will be. But I think it's very fitting that these changes — these new beginnings — come from this peaceful, quiet place aptly named Newtown."

"Make this the time that change happens. Don't give up because it seems too hard or too difficult. Make a promise to honor the lives lost in Sandy Hook and elsewhere in America by turning this tragedy into the moment of transformation that benefits us all."

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