Newtown searches for answers to gun violence

The Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety Task Force met for the fourth time Wednesday evening to discuss ways to reduce gun violence.
The Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety Task Force met for the fourth time Wednesday evening to discuss ways to reduce gun violence. Photo by Brianne Bowen.

In an auditorium where only seven weeks ago, hundreds mourned 26 slain students and teachers, Connecticut residents crowded Wednesday evening to voice their opinions on how to stem the tide of violence across the nation.

The public hearing at Newtown High School was held by the Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety Task Force, which the state Legislature established in the wake of the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Well over a hundred parents, educators, first responders and Newtown residents offered personal anecdotes and policy suggestions to the task force for more than five hours. Although they addressed possible ways to minimize gun violence through school safety and mental health, most of the hearing dealt with the possibility of tighter regulations on guns.

While those present spoke on both sides of the gun-control debate, the vast majority did so forcefully in favor of stricter regulations on guns, including universal background checks on gun purchases and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

“Guns allow human feelings to be amplified,” said Andrei Nikitchyuk, whose third-grade son attends Sandy Hook Elementary. “They amplify them in a way that is godlike and irreversible.”

Wednesday evening’s hearing was the fourth held by the task force this week: Committees of the task force held hearings covering school safety, gun violence and mental health in Hartford on Friday, Monday and Tuesday, respectively.

The audience on Wednesday evening was the “polar opposite” of Monday’s more pro-gun-rights-leaning crowd, one Newtown resident said while speaking. As those either intimately or peripherally connected to the 26 dead spoke, opponents of stricter gun control stood out as anomalies, leading one to ask the crowd to “be patient” with him. Some gun advocates — one of whom said it was a “shame” that he had to defend the Second Amendment — expressed impatience with the applause gun-control advocates frequently received.

Supporters of tighter gun regulation, most of whom also expressed support for increased access to mental health services, generally proposed similar ideas on what specific regulation would prevent future shootings. Redding, Conn. Police Chief Douglas Fuchs, echoing the ideas of many others, proposed six legal actions related to firearms: banning high-capacity magazines, banning civilian possession of assault weapons, providing those who approve firearm permits with access to gun purchasers’ mental health records, giving police chiefs greater abilities to deny firearm permit applications, requiring all firearms to be thoroughly secured and giving Connecticut law enforcement “the tools needed to protect residents.”

Beyond gun control, school security proved to be the most controversial topic at the hearing. Since the shooting at Sandy Hook, many –— including some in favor of an assault weapons ban — have suggested putting more armed guards, or “resource officers,” in schools. Still others have suggested arming teachers, a proposal that fell on unwelcoming ears at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Should teachers carry guns?” asked Tom Swetts, a Newtown High School teacher who taught Newtown shooter Adam Lanza. “I would quit tomorrow.”

Across the testimonies, regardless of stance on gun control, a single notion permeated the hearing: the overwhelming sense of loss faced by the parents of the dead, Sandy Hook Elementary School and Newtown as a whole.

Quoting the Declaration of Independence, Richard Marotto, whose daughter attends first grade at Sandy Hook, told the task force, “Children are entitled to the rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness,” but that the children of Sandy Hook had been denied those rights.

The hearing on Wednesday evening came only hours after a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on the same issue. Nationally visible participants in the debate over gun legislation, including former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was nearly killed during a mass shooting in 2011, and Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association testified.

“Too many children are dying,” Giffords told the committee, the room silent as she struggled to speak. “Too many children.”

In the past week, senators have introduced numerous legislative initiatives in response to the mass shooting in Newtown, including a federal ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as a proposal requiring a background check to purchase ammunition. Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 and Chris Murphy have taken leading roles in working for the passage of both proposals.

Correction: Feb. 1 

A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that the Gun Violence and Children’s Safety Task Force was established by Gov. Dannel Malloy, when in fact it was established by the state Legislature.

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