Through their grief, the people of Newtown speak
Newtown — In a hushed auditorium, harshly lit for television, the families and neighbors of Sandy Hook’s lost children told visiting legislators Monday night to take a stand against gun violence, not always prescribing how.
“You are our elected officials,” said Nicole Hockley, who last held the hand of her 6-year-old son, Dylan, as he lay in a small casket. “It is your duty to create and enforce the laws that protect and help us, using common sense, morals and a sense of humanity to guide you.”
By the hundreds, her neighbors rose and embraced her with applause, as did the legislators. So went the routine all night, where residents aching for gun control or better mental health screening had their say, then left to applause.
Ardent opponents of gun control spoke later, most offering condolences before politely protesting that no new law would have stopped their children’s killer, Adam Lanza. They also were neighbors, and they, too, left to applause.
The bipartisan legislative task force created in response to the shooting deaths of 20 first-graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14 filled the wide stage of Newtown High School.
“Our job is to listen,” House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, told them at the outset.
The hearing was like none at the State Capitol in Hartford. It couldn’t be, not in a town where a firehouse is newly decorated with 26 copper stars, one for each victim. It is a place where most anything can remind residents of what happened on Dec. 14.
They gathered in the high school that once represented the distant futures of 20 absent children, the place where the parents of Jesse Lewis, Dylan Hockley, Benjamin Wheeler and the others expected them to grow, learn and graduate with the Class of ’24.
Parents of those three children spoke. So did Bill Sherlach, the husband of the school psychologist, Mary Sherlach, and Peter Paradis, the stepfather of a teacher’s aide, Rachel D’Avino. They were two of the six women who died with the children they taught, counseled and tried to protect.
Susie Ehrens, the mother of a girl who ran past the killer with eight classmates from the classroom of Vicki Soto, a teacher killed apparently trying to shield students, struggled for composure.
“I know how lucky we are,” Ehrens said. “The fact my daughter survived and others didn’t haunts me.”
Ehrens made no effort to hide a coiled anger. She told the officials that America gave up its claim to greatness when it preferred the slaughter of innocents to the risk of offending gun owners.
“We stopped being something to be proud of when we love our guns more than we love our children,” Ehrens said. Her closing demand was delivered like a punch to the gut: “that every decision you make as if it’s your child that didn’t walk out that school that day.”
Andres Nikitehyuk also struggled with what might have been. His son, a third-grader taking his turn as class helper, was in the hallway when gunfire erupted. A teacher yanked him inside her class, then locked the door.
“Here is what I want to say to each and every one of you: I used to be part of the silent majority,” Nikitehyuk said. “It’s been long overdue, but it’s clear I have to speak up.”
He demanded that the legislature ban the manufacture and sale of firearms like the Bushmaster AR-15, the semiautomatic rifle Adam Lanza used in the assault on Sandy Hook.
Scarlett Lewis, whose six-year-old son, Jesse, was killed in Miss Soto’s class, had no demands, just a request for everyone to let go of anger, to find a productive response. She said she was heartened by how the community has rallied.
“We need to somehow hold onto that feeling of love and oneness,” she said.
First Selectman Patricia Llodra — the title is selectman, thank you, she will tell visiting reporters — was the first to speak. The Republican official is now a folk hero, a woman credited with keeping her small town functioning, her community intact.
In the same auditorium, she greeted President Obama two days after the killings. More recently, she opened a conversation here about what Newtown might eventually do with the Sandy Hook Elementary School.
She had no doubts Monday night about the Bushmaster, calling it an assault weapon. She wants such weapons banned: “I cannot agree that weapons such as the Bushmaster have any legitimate role in society.”
Llodra said she realizes that a consensus on guns may not be easy.
“I can accept that change will be incremental, but I do demand that we get going on that right path,” she said. “Let’s take some of those steps to reform our gun control policies. Let’s improve access to high quality mental-health care with an emphasis on early identification and intervention.”
“I ask that you commit yourself to this journey of change,” Llodra said. “Please be with us for the long haul.”
Her constituents rose and applauded, as did the legislators on stage.
Sherlach, the husband of the school psychologist, who was killed when she confronted Lanza with the school’s principal, said he was puzzled by gun owners who say they need AR-15s as a check on government tyrrany.
“I don’t understand them,” he said. “In today’s world of drones, missiles and other high-tech weaponry if a government wants to take out your house or your car, you will never see it coming.”
David Wheeler, whose six-year-old son, Benjamin, was killed, said the legislators must find a way for authorties to better match information on the emotionally disturbed against a registry of homes with guns. No authority apparently ever challenged Nancy Lanza for keeping an AR-15 and other firearms in a home with a son who had emotional problems.
“It doesn’t matter to whom these weapons were registered. It doesn’t matter if they were purchased legally,” Wheeler said. “What matters is that it was far too easy for another mentally unbalanced, suicidal person who had a violent obsessions to have easy access to unreasonably powerful weapons.”
To gun owners who ask that their Second Amendment rights not be infringed by asking them to give up certain rifles and high-capacity magazines, Wheeler asked about another right articulated by the Founding Fathers, the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“The liberty of any person to own a military-style assault weapon and a high-capacity magazine and keep them in their home is second to the right of my son to his life — his life, to the right to live of all those children and those teachers,” Wheeler said. “Let’s honor the Founding Fathers and get our priorities straight.”
Tom Swetts, a teacher at Newtown High, told the legislators he was standing on the same cold concrete floor where his students were told to lie down on Dec. 14, when the high school also was locked down.
He told them one of his former students was Adam Lanza.
Swetts said educators need to know more about students who might be struggling with mental illness, though he had no desire to be armed.
“Should teachers carry guns? I’d quit tomorrow,” Swetts said.
There were dozens of dissenters to the demands for limits on the size of magazines and a ban on the possession of rifles like the AR-15, a reminder that Newtown is surrounded by gun clubs and gun ranges.
Casey Khan, the father of a Sandy Hook student, said the demand for gun control was misplaced.
Michael Collins, an emergency medical technician and NRA pistol instructor, said only one man deserves blame for Sandy Hook.
“The person responsible for this outrage was the person who planned it and carried it out,” Collins said. “We must give the blame for this to Adam Lanza.”
Michael Daubert, a retired state trooper from Newtown, said he once felt the same way. He said, “I was very pro gun, up until now.”
Follow Mark Pazniokas on Twitter @CTMirrorPaz
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