On guns, pols are told, ‘Do something. Stop talking’

Hartford -- In the 11 months and 14 days before the nation reeled from the mass shooting deaths of 26 children and educators in Newtown, 21 men and women were killed in Hartford, drawing little notice.

In all, the city registered 22 murders for the year, down from the previous years. The homicides were incremental, occurring from January to December, bookended by the unrelated deaths of two 21-year-old males, one stabbed and one shot.


Sen. Chris Murphy. At right, Chief James Rovella.

Violent death is not new here, as U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal were pointedly told as they staged a roundtable discussion on gun violence in the city's North End with cops, politicians and health professionals.

"What happened in Newtown, we grieved as much as anybody in Newtown grieved, because we understand the significant loss of life," said the Rev. Henry Brown, whose pulpit often is a street corner, protesting violence.

Brown, an activist possessed of booming voice, told the senators he didn't come "to be friends with nobody," a promise kept as he unloaded with a loud, stream-of-conscious blast about guns, urban ills and the interests of politicians.

"Listen, we did three marches to the State Capitol, talking about gun violence," Brown said, speaking into a cordless microphone that was superfluous. "I didn't see none of you folks. None of you! None of you!"

His audience included the two U.S. senators, Mayor Pedro Segarra, several state legislators and council members, and the city's chief of police, James Rovella, who alone was spared from Brown's disdain.

"Chief Rovella, God bless him. Great man," Brown said, evidently aware that violent crime has dropped in the city. "He makes a difference, but we need more Chief Rovellas."

The senators sat poker-faced. That is part of the deal a politician makes with roundtable discussions open to the public. They are theater and community outreach, and the outreach part is unscripted.

So, Brown asked them, the political world is ready to do something about guns?

"Do something. Stop talking. Because all you are doing is talking, nothing is going to change with talk," Brown said. Then a final dig: "God knows, if Newtown didn't happen, why none of you would be here today. None of you."

Murphy, 38, who is seven days into his new role as the nation's youngest U.S. senator, whose old congressional district includes Newtown, leaned forward, sleeves rolled up, chin resting on his clasped hands.


Rev. Henry Brown

He watched Brown, a big man in a hoodie, his head shaved, rock on his feet as he made his points, talking about funerals of young men in Hartford, funerals that didn't draw the attention of presidents, governors, senators, mayors or the media.

If Newtown will bring change on guns, Brown said that's good, but just do it.

"You've gotta be real. You've gotta be real," Brown told the politicians. "Don't tell me no lies."

Others offered similar, if less pointed, views.

They sat in the Parker community center, a glistening new building in a North End neighborhood where there is little that shines. One man welcomed them to 06120, saying they were in the state's poorest zip code.

If it's not the poorest, it clearly is struggling: Median household income in 06120 is little more than $19,000, and nearly 92 percent of the neighborhood children qualify for free school lunches.

Murphy and Blumenthal said later they were not bothered by Brown's challenge or by the undercurrent of resentment that the chronic pain of urban gun violence is tolerated.

"It shouldn't have to take something as awful as what happened in Newtown to wake this nation up to gun violence," Murphy said. "I understand some of the frustration that you hear in Hartford, but frankly you've heard all across the country. We need to seize this moment and do something on gun violence that makes a difference for elementary schools, as well as inner cities."

"We have common ground," Blumenthal said. "We need to maximize what we have in common."

Murphy said he is well aware of that most shootings draw no public notice. By his count, he said, nearly 700 Americans have died from gunshots since Dec. 14, the day that 26 children and educators died in Newtown.

Follow Mark Pazniokas on Twitter @CtMirrorPaz