State gun hearing draws thousands

Neil Heslin, whose son was killed in the December Newtown shooting, testified at a gun-control hearing Monday.
Neil Heslin, whose son was killed in the December Newtown shooting, testified at a gun-control hearing Monday. Photo by Sara Miller.

HARTFORD — Highlighting deep fissures that divide Connecticut residents over the fate of state gun legislation, more than a thousand people packed into the Capitol Building Monday to attend a legislative hearing addressing gun violence.

The hearing is one of four hosted by the state legislature’s Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety Task Force, created in the wake of the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six adults dead. Though the task force is also holding public hearings on school safety and mental health this week, Monday’s hearing, which centered on gun laws, drew a particularly passionate crowd, with even parents of Sandy Hook victims disagreeing on the path the state should follow.

Veronique Pozner, mother of 6-year-old Noah Pozner, one of the victims at Sandy Hook, said that her son had loved life — that he had “taken large, hungry bites out of every day” — and described the injustice that had befallen her son. As a result of her son’s death, Pozner called for across-the-board tightening of gun restrictions, including widening the ban on semi-automatic weapons, limiting high-capacity ammunition magazines, closing loopholes in the state’s background check system and holding gun permit owners accountable for crimes committed with their weapons.

“He will never get to attend middle school or high school, kiss a girl, attend college, pick a career path, fall in love, marry, have children or travel the world. … Noah, and the 25 other victims whose lives ended tragically that day, were stripped of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” she said. “This is not about the right to bear arms. It is about the right to bear weapons with the capacity for mass destruction.”

But Mark Mattioli, whose 6-year-old son James was also killed at Sandy Hook, said that the legislative task force should focus its attention on enforcing gun laws already on the books rather than creating new ones. He also said he believed the task force should prioritize providing better mental health support and examining violence in the media, adding that he thinks some liberals are using the shooting as a springboard to spread fear on gun issues.

“The problem is not gun laws, the problem is a lack of civility — we need common decency to prevail,” Mattioli said. “I think we have more than enough [gun laws] on the books. We should hold people individually accountable for their actions, and we should enforce laws appropriately.”

The issue that divided Sandy Hook parents defined the split in the hearing room: On one side sat gun-control advocates, sporting the green ribbons that have come to memorialize the Sandy Hook shooting. On the other, a larger group of Second Amendment defenders, wearing yellow stickers that read “Another Responsible Gun Owner,” clapped for those who testified against passing additional restrictions and shouted at speakers, including another Sandy Hook shooting victim’s parent, who questioned their right to own assault weapons.

The crowd of approximately 1,300 attendees soon grew so large that those who arrived after 11 a.m. were funneled into two overflow rooms. More than a thousand people — including family members, gun owners, gun-control advocates and industry representatives — had registered to testify, with some participants estimating that testimony would continue past midnight.

Outside the building, attendees endured frigid temperatures and gusts of snow to pass through metal detectors, an extra safety precaution put in place at the Capitol for the hearing. Men in hunting jackets and NRA caps mingled in line with women, many of whom belonged to the group “One Million Moms for Gun Control.” Just as inside the meeting, gun-rights supporters clearly outnumbered advocates for tighter restrictions standing in line.

Amy Pines, a mother of two from Westport and a volunteer for “One Million Moms for Gun Control,” said that the imbalance was partly due to the snow blanketing Connecticut. School districts across the state had announced early closures, and many mothers rushed from the hearing to pick up their kids.

Many of the gun-rights supporters in line said that they felt owning a firearm was crucial to their personal protection. Michael Tabone, a self-defense instructor who lives in the greater New Haven area, said that if he could not own a gun legally, he would not be able to protect himself  adequately from those who owned guns illegally.

“If you deny me the means of self-defense, you deny me the right to self-defense,” he said. “It’s not a moral superiority to be a victim.”

Mike Leone, another gun owner from Southington standing next to Tabone in line, pointed out that a majority of gun-related deaths are not even committed using semi-automatic weapons, as such weapons are typically “big and menacing-looking” and thus hard to conceal and carry.

Leone’s sentiment was echoed by several legislators who testified, including New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, who may run for the seat DeStefano will vacate this November. Both said that, though the hearing had been convened as a result of the shooting in Newtown, they, along with lawmakers from other urban areas, would take the opportunity to combat regular gun violence on their streets.

Holder-Winfield went on to cite gun-related murder statistics for the state’s three largest cities, Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford: 88 in 2008, over 100 by 2010.

“That’s a slow, banal, mass killing,” Holder-Winfield said. “It’s not for lack of opportunity that we find ourselves here — it’s for lack of action.”

Several survivors of the July shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., including Yale student Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent ’13, also testified in favor of tighter gun laws, such as measures to limit the number of guns a person can purchase per month. Rodriguez, who escaped the theater without any wounds, declared his desire to give back by becoming a police officer in New Haven upon graduation.

At least two other Yale students were also in attendance of today’s hearing. Nia Holston ’14 and Ashley Ison ’14 came to represent the student group Black Student Alliance at Yale. Holston said they had come because the majority of gun violence affects “people of color.”

The task force aims to have legislation ready for a vote by the end of February.

Correction: Jan. 29 

The article “Gun hearing draws thousands” misidentified Nia Holston ’14 and Ashley Ison ’14 as members of Black Students at Yale, when in fact the organization is called the Black Student Alliance at Yale. 

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