Sandy Hook parents' testimony reflects gun divide

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HARTFORD, Conn. -- Victims of gun violence, burly men clad in hunting jackets and National Rifle Association hats, mothers wearing stickers reading "We Demand Change Now."

They were among hundreds of people who packed into the state Capitol on Monday for a charged and often emotional hearing on gun laws. The turnout highlighted the deep divisions in a state that has become a focal point of the national gun control debate since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown last month that killed 20 children and six adult staff members.

Among those testifying Monday were parents of some of the youngest Newtown victims, who took opposing sides.

"The sole purpose of those AR-15s or AK-47s is to put a lot of lead out on the battlefield quickly, and that's what they do, and that's what they did at Sandy Hook Elementary School," said Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son, Jesse Lewis, was a victim.

Mr. Heslin told lawmakers that he had grown up around guns and was the son of an avid hunter, but that he believed that there was no reason any civilian should have an assault-style weapon such as the one used to kill his son. "That wasn't just a killing. That was a massacre," he said. "Those children and those victims were shot apart. And my son was one of them."

But Mark Mattioli, whose son James, 6, was also killed at Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14, said: "I believe in a few simple gun laws. I think we have more than enough on the books. We should hold people individually accountable for their actions. ... The problem is not gun laws. The problem is a lack of civility."

The hearing, one of several scheduled by the legislature's Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children's Safety, was expected to run long into the night. Nearly 1,500 people -- family members, gun control advocates, gun rights advocates and gun industry representatives -- had signed up or were invited to testify, although it was unclear how many would get the chance. The task force hopes to have legislation prepared for passage by the end of February.

Outside the building, people braved frigid temperatures and driving snow waiting to pass through metal detectors, part of heightened security measures for the hearing. Women from groups such as March for Change and One Million Moms for Gun Control, which are calling for stricter gun laws, stood far outnumbered by gun rights supporters, most of them men. One man carried a sign reading "Gun Control Does Not Make You Safer." Another wore a jacket that said "NRA Empowerment Member."

David Gentry, a personal trainer from Stamford, wore a holster on his waist with a copy of the Constitution tucked in it. "I just feel that's where the conversation should start," he said.

Mr. Gentry, a father of two, said he was saddened by the Newtown massacre but also worried about "knee-jerk reactions" to it. Immediately after the attack, he said, he renewed his NRA membership, bought four NRA T-shirts and decided to attend the hearing Monday to oppose stricter gun proposals.

"There are things we can do in this country to help secure our children and improve firearms safety," he said. "Better training, securing firearms, yet not making them inaccessible to authorized owners."

Kori Hammel, a musician and mother from Stratford, came with March for Change. "Sandy Hook was 10 minutes from where I grew up," she said. "I just can't act like everything is OK."

Connecticut is considered to have some of the strictest U.S. gun control laws. But gun ownership has been on the rise, and the gun industry and pro-gun groups have flexed more muscle in Hartford in recent years.

Last year, gun rights advocates showed up by the hundreds at a hearing to oppose legislation that would have restricted high-capacity ammunition magazines such as those used by Adam Lanza in the Newtown massacre.

On Monday, the state's gun manufacturers said they backed stricter background checks but warned the task force against legislation they said could harm the state's historic gun industry. Connecticut is the nation's seventh-largest maker of firearms.

In Washington, President Barack Obama met Monday with law enforcement leaders, including officials from four communities where mass shootings occurred recently, and urged them to help him build support in Congress to pass his proposals to toughen gun laws.

Mr. Obama asserted that law enforcement leaders are the most important group in the fraught and emotional gun debate -- "They are where the rubber hits the road," he said -- and that a consensus among police chiefs and sheriffs could influence wavering lawmakers.

"Hopefully, if law enforcement officials who are dealing with this stuff every single day can come to some consensus in terms of steps that we need to take, Congress is going to be paying attention to them, and we'll be able to make progress," he said.

Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano joined him and 13 police chiefs and sheriffs at the White House meeting.

Mr. Obama urged passage of universal background checks for all gun buyers, which administration officials have said is his top priority.


The Washington Post contributed.


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