Perhaps we should have expected to get shouted at. Perhaps we should have known we’d get taunted.
But it was unimaginably sad to learn that Neil Heslin, father of slain Sandy Hook 6-year-old Jessie McCord Lewis, was heckled as he spoke at Monday’s hearing for the Gun Violence Prevention Working Group at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.
Heslin bravely offered his testimony regarding rapid-firing firearms like the one used in the slaying of his son, saying, “I still can’t see why any civilian, anybody in the room in fact, needs weapons of that sort. You’re not going to use them for hunting, even for home protection.” As the despondent father spoke, pro-gun activists in the room shouted at him, “Second Amendment!” and “Our rights will not be infringed!”
I was present in the main hearing room for part of the day. I had hoped to offer my testimony like the 1,400 other individuals who registered to speak, and join a reported 2,000 in total who came to the hearings. We all felt passionately about sharing our views with the legislators, those who felt similarly and those who disagreed.
We were energized by the democratic process, by being able to express our views to those who represented us, and by finding strength in the voices of those who felt similarly.
Those like me, who support stricter gun laws and restrictions on gun purchasing, were easily outnumbered by gun rights activists, by what seemed like 100 to 1. We had heard that CT gun groups had organized buses to pack the venue with their members. We knew it would be a tense day, but couldn’t have imagined how acrimonious it really became.
In fact it was the acrimony and the despicable behavior of a vocal fringe minority of gun rights activists that made it clear just how hostile and extreme this battle over guns really is.
Not Your Usual Day of Testimony
Typically there are no metal detectors at the buildings’ entrances, but because the day’s topic was guns they installed them, causing a long, 100-yard snaking line to get into the legislative building. In fact, it took two hours of standing outside in frigid temperatures and falling snow before we could get in and be screened.
Many in my group felt nervous, never having testified before and not knowing what to expect. Most of us there to testify about strengthening gun laws were women, allied with March for Change or One Million Moms for Gun Control.
Several of us wore green, to show support for those killed in Newtown. We talked about how likely it was that many women who planned to attend the hearing with us couldn’t, due to early dismissals many school districts called once the snowfall started sticking. I guess us moms are ‘the first line of defense’ when the kids’ plans change. It seemed the majority of the gun rights proponents were men.
Gender and gun-law positions weren’t the only differences we noticed.
On line, during testimony and through most of the day, there were many interactions with those who felt differently that felt incredibly hostile and overpowering. Most of the individuals on each side of the debate stood calmly, and treated one another respectfully, if not simply without acknowledgement. But that didn’t stop more than a handful of gun advocates from starting their bullying before getting in the building, screaming at those wearing green, “Don’t cut the line, you think you’re so privileged! We have our rights!”
The same kinds of catcalls and shouts were more apparent inside, most markedly in the overflow rooms where the testimony to legislators was televised on closed circuit video. The cheers, taunts and leers were loud each time a pro-gun speaker sat in front of the lawmakers, the looks, hisses and whispered insults were constant.
Even inside the main hearing room, where the panel’s chair regularly asked onlookers from both sides to refrain from applause and comment, the muted taunts by a vocal few gun-rights supporters against gun-safety advocates kept coming — like the hisses directed at the Rabbi from Newtown, when he talked about counseling the families of the murdered children.
We listened to mayors and legislators from urban areas talk about the kind of violence that claims the lives of their inner-city youth; we listened to the testimony of the Donnelly brother and sister, whose parents were brutally shot to death during a robbery of their Fairfield jewelry store; we listened to the young men from Southbury who survived the Aurora movie theater shooting last summer.
We listened to those on the other side, who spoke of their reasons for wanting no change to current gun laws, but nothing swayed me from my current position. If anything, I walked away feeling stronger in my convictions about the changes in gun legislation I hope to see.
Even Sensible Changes, But It’s Still Too Much For Some
I’ve articulated my beliefs that our current state and federal gun laws should be strengthened, and should be more consistently and better enforced. I’ve written it before, and I’ll write it here again:
I do not think that citizens should be stripped of their right to own a gun, especially in order to protect themselves.
But I want to clarify some areas of gun law that I think are most important to focus on:
- We need a gun registry, just like the DMV
- We need a gun-offender registry, just like a sex-offender registry
- We need stronger, universal background checks, every place someone can buy a gun
- We need stronger enforcement of current gun laws
- We need licensing and testing requirements for gun owners and users, just like we license drivers
- All registration and licensing needs to be renewed annually
- There should be age limits on gun purchases
- Assault weapons whose sole purpose is to kill, and which are more suited to be used by the military rather than by civilians, should be banned. I’m on the fence about grandfathering because I understand the futility and impracticality of it at this point.
- Access to high-capacity magazines should be limited.
I know that the deplorable behavior I saw Monday during the hearings is an expression of rage by a vocal, fringe minority. I know that there are reasonable gun owners and NRA members, who agree on many of the points I listed above.
In fact, a recent poll conducted after the Newtown massacre found that 86% of NRA members support background checks for ALL gun sales — that all gun buyers should be required to pass a criminal background check, no matter where they buy the gun and no matter whom they buy it from.
I’m terrified by those who are motivated to own and amass weapons because of such extreme fear that they believe they are living under direct threat from the police, from our government. This kind of paranoia should be symptomatic of the kinds of mental illness checks everyone on the side defending fewer gun laws now seems to be clamoring for.
The Emotional Arguments
I support the need for increased attention to mental illness in this country. But I’d like to point out the irony and hypocrisy of those who say mental health should be the primary focus as a cause for such gun violence. I imagine many of those same advocates for fewer restrictions on gun access are the same people calling for reducing and eliminating funding for mental health care.
I hear the term ‘institutionalize’ a lot but I don’t hear as much talk about care, providers, programs, and the funding it takes to put that in place and keep it in place long term. In fact, perhaps we could bring the topic of healthcare (e.g. Obamacare) into this decision and see how quickly that tide turns?
In this discussion, the topic of mental health is usually tied to the kinds of gun violence associated with mass shootings. But that can’t be the only scapegoat, given the much more significant numbers of accidental gun deaths and gun violence in inner cities.
People advocating for more restrictions and regulations on gun access aren’t only upset beginning with the Newtown tragedy. We’re horrified by the daily violence seen in the inner cities, and I’m ashamed that I haven’t been more of a vocal and energetic an advocate until now.
It’s not just about mental health.
I’d love to see the fringe right as well clamoring for ways to end the killing of inner-city, mostly minority youth due to gun violence, the same way they clamor for ‘unborn children.’ In the same way they line up outside abortion clinics and protest funding for Planned Parenthood using imagery of aborted fetuses, I’d like to see them holding signs showing what the murdered children of Sandy Hook looked like, as these officers recount in a Tuesday New York Times article, or as Veronique Pozner, the mother of the youngest Newtown victim, Noah Pozner, has so eloquently described.
Speaking of parents of Newtown victims, I witnessed Mrs. Pozner’s grace first hand, watching her in the hearing room as she unwaveringly told the legislators of her hopes following the murder of her son, his friends and his teachers:
“The equation is terrifyingly simple: Faster weapons equal more fatalities. This is not about the right to bear arms. It is about the right to bear weapons with the capacity for mass destruction.”
I’ve read countless comments on Patch forums from those who bemoan the ‘emotional’ argument, as they’ve so often characterized the columns I’ve written on this in the past. It is emotional — obviously on both sides. I can’t remain coldly indifferent to the loss of life that grows every day.
So as I did Monday in Hartford, and as I will continue to do every day as long as it is necessary, I will continue to speak out, accepting the Second Amendment of the Constitution, but also to defend our right to be safe from those who have a misguided interpretation of the right to bear arms.