March for Change draws thousands to Hartford

In the wake of the Newtown shooting, the March for Change rally sought to persuade state legislators to tighten gun laws.
In the wake of the Newtown shooting, the March for Change rally sought to persuade state legislators to tighten gun laws. Photo by Emma Goldberg.

HARTFORD — Marking the two-month anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn., a crowd that police estimated at 5,500 gathered on the state Capitol Thursday to demonstrate for stricter gun laws.

The event, known as the “March for Change,” was intended to influence lawmakers sitting on the gun violence branch of a bipartisan legislative committee, which is due to propose a series of new restrictions to the General Assembly by the end of the month. Organized by Connecticut resident Nancy Lefkowitz and approximately 90 other town organizers, the march featured speakers including Gov. Dannel Malloy, Republican Senate Minority Leader John McKinney and several Sandy Hook victims’ family members. The crowd, awash in a sea of commemorative green ribbons to honor those who lost their lives in Newtown, scrambled over snowbanks, waved signs and shouted their approval at whomever took the stage, while several gun-rights supporters stood nearby protesting the march.

The program promoted a decidedly progressive agenda: Speakers almost unanimously called for a tighter ban on assault-style weapons, a limit on high-capacity ammunition magazines and the creation of a universal background check system. Malloy, who took the stage first to raucous cheering, promoted all of these items as a part of a comprehensive, “common-sense” gun agenda he is pushing the Legislature to pass.

“When people will block an up-or-down vote for a common-sense principle that is supported overwhelmingly by the citizens of the United States, something is wrong with our politics — something is wrong with our democracy,” Malloy said.

After Malloy and several members of his administration spoke, family members of shooting victims came to the podium, one after another, to describe how gun violence had torn their lives apart. Robert Thompson, a father of four from Bridgeport, described how his 14-year-old son Justin was shot on his way home from a friend’s party. Colin Goddard, a survivor of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, told the crowd that several bullets still remain in his body. Whenever a speaker found himself speechless, overwhelmed with emotion, the crowd chanted, “We’re with you!”

Jillian Soto, a college sophomore from Stratford and the younger sister of deceased Sandy Hook first-grade teacher Victoria Soto, put her pain in perspective for the crowd.

“I want you to think about the five most important people to you,” she told the crowd. “What if you wrote those five names down on a piece of paper, handed it to me, and I crossed one of them out. How would that impact you?”

Despite the day’s strongly progressive agenda, many Republican lawmakers were in attendance. McKinney — the only Republican to speak after Republican House Leader Lawrence Cafero pulled out of the event — expressed his willingness to cooperate with both Democrats and other Republicans to find appropriate middle ground on new gun regulations.

While Lefkowitz and others organizing the rally had initially expected a crowd of approximately 2,500, they were not surprised that the turnout exceeded expectations.

“People are motivated to create change right now,” Lefkowitz said. “The issue is selling itself to a big audience. The events in Newtown were a tipping point for everyone who cares about this issue.”

The event drew Connecticut residents of all demographics, from New Haven residents to the Democrats Club from The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville. There was also a large contingent of Newtown residents of all ages. Twelve-year-old Tiernan Keane, a student at Newtown Middle School, said he was inspired to come to the march to pay tribute to friends of his who had been killed at Sandy Hook, like 6-year-old Noah Pozner.

“At first, when the shooting happened in December, we were locked up in our school for hours and we were so scared,” Keane said. “But then out of our grieving we decided to take action.”

Several gun-rights supporters came to the march and held signs opposing the speakers’ progressive agenda, with slogans such as “Because criminals commit crimes, I don’t lose my rights.” Ethan Shipley, a Connecticut resident, said he came to the march because he was angry that legislators were speaking of restricting his rights as a gun owner.

“I have a clean criminal background, and I’m being turned into a felon just because I own a gun,” Shipley said. “Sex offenders need to be registered, gun owners don’t.”

A group of over a dozen Yale students, including members from the Yale College Democrats and Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent ’13, a survivor of the Aurora movie theater shooting, traveled to Hartford for the march. Rodriguez-Torrent, who volunteers with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, helped organize the event.

Cindy Hwang ’15 and Brinton Williams ’16, the Dems’ legislative captains for gun control, coordinated Yale attendance at the march after asking students to write letters to Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney calling for the passage of gun-control legislation.

“We live in New Haven, where gun violence happens every day on the streets, so we’re really glad that Yale students could have a presence at the march,” Hwang said.

Along with a bill on gun control, the bipartisan legislative committee will deliver bills on mental health and school safety to the General Assembly at the end of the month.

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