NEWTOWN -- Bells tolled and the heavens wept Friday morning as thousands gathered to mark the one-week anniversary of the killing of 20 first-graders and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
They tolled 26 times in Bridgeport, Hartford and each of the state's 169 municipalities at 9:30 a.m.
That was the time the gunman, Adam Lanza, 20, blasted his way into the school on what had been a peaceful Friday morning.
"When I heard the 26 bells ring it just melted my soul," said a devastated Kerrie Glassman, of Sandy Hook, who knew seven victims. "It's just overwhelming."
They tolled in Massachusetts, Georgia, South Carolina and across the nation, as millions of Americans wept along with the grieving residents of this shattered but resolute town.
"We need unity as a nation to stand against this violence," said the Rev. Bill Coates, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Gainesville, Ga. "It allows those who feel helpless to help those whose lives were affected."
They tolled in Washington, where advocates for stricter gun and ammunition control hoped the emotion would fire an effort to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and provide more federal dollars for school security and help for the mentally ill.
"We should make sure the bells never leave our head," said Chris Murphy, the state's newly elected U.S. senator. "We need to hear them when we wake up, for as long as it takes ... that we do what we have to do to live up to the beautiful memories of these people who died."
He urged Congress to fund armed guards in every school under a National School Shield Program using a volunteer army of retired police officers and trained firearms users.
"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," LaPierre claimed.
Rather than supporting limits on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, and expanding background checks on purchasers, LaPierre took aim at the media, Hollywood and video game producers.
"There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt and corrupting industry that sells and sows violence against its own people, through vicious, violent video games with names like `Bulletstorm,' `Grand Theft Auto,' `Mortal Kombat' and `Splatterhouse,'" LaPierre charged.
To bolster his claims, he showed a portion of "Kindergarten Killers," a game available free on the Internet in which a janitor shoots young children.
"It's been online for 10 years. How come my research staff can find it, and all of yours couldn't or didn't want anyone to know you had found it?" he asked. "Isn't fantasizing about killing people as a way to get your kicks really the filthiest form of pornography?"
Investigators know that Lanza was infatuated with shooting games, as well as shooting guns.
During the Dec. 14 search of the Yogananda Street home Lanza shared with his mother, Nancy, 52, investigators seized a trove of video game material as well as computer equipment, cellphones and other electronics.
People who knew the family said he spent hours in the basement with its elaborate video game set-up that included computers and a large screen television.
Daniel Frost, who sat near Lanza in a Newtown High School computer class, remembered the killer enjoyed a game called "Counter Strike," in which players compete against each other as terrorists and counter-terrorists.
Frost even recalled the weapons Lanza chose: an M-4 military-style assault rifle and a Glock.
Lanza used a .223 Bushmaster assault rifle, patterned after the military's M-16, to mow down the 26 Sandy Hook school victims. He carried a Glock and Sig Sauer handguns, favorites of police, which he used to kill his mother and himself.
LaPierre's remarks were criticized by anti-gun proponents, including Burke Strunsky, a California senior deputy district attorney; Michael Bloomberg, New York City's mayor, and Brian Malte, an official with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
"The NRA is completely out of step with the national conversation, particularly when it comes to semi-automatic rifles and high capacity clips that have no legitimate hunting or self-defense purpose," said Strunsky, a two-time prosecutor of the year. "The NRA is positioned to become irrelevant unless they take a temperature reading of national sentiments and acknowledge the patent realities of the number of guns and gun violence."
Bloomberg, who leads Mayors Against Illegal Guns, called the NRA news conference "a shameful evasion of the crisis affecting our country.
"Instead of offering solutions to a problem they helped create," he said, "they offered a paranoid, dystopian vision of a more dangerous and violent America where everyone is armed and no place is safe."
"The NRA is tone deaf," Malte said. "The real conversation that the American public wants to have is about comprehensive solutions to the 32 gun murders that occur every day in the country."
LaPierre responded that armed guards is the appropriate solution.
"A gun in the hands of a Secret Service agent protecting the president isn't a bad word; a gun in the hands of a soldier protecting the United States isn't a bad word. So why is the idea of a gun ... bad when it's used to protect our children in their schools?" he countered.
As the bells tolled in Newtown on Friday morning, firefighters inside the Sandy Hook station wrapped their arms around each other and wept.
A week ago, they were witnesses to 500 joyful reunions and 26 horrifying discoveries. Their firehouse, just down the street from the school, served as the reuniting point for parents and children.
"It's been really hard," said George Lockwood Jr., an engineer with the department. "But we are all sticking together."
Meanwhile the vigils continue.
At the former Fairfield Hills campus in Newtown on Friday night, hundreds gathered in the cold, consoling each other, sobbing together upon hearing the 26 victims' names again and listening to words of hope from First Selectman Patricia Lloda and School Superintendent Janet Robinson.
What they didn't hear was the answer they sought: Why?
And the church bells will keep tolling. Saturday they will ring during services for three more children: Ana Grace Marquez-Greene at 10 a.m. at the First Cathedral in Bloomfield; Josephine Grace Gray at 11 a.m. in St. Rose of Lima Catholic in Newtown and Emilie Alice Parker in Utah.
Staff Writers Kristen Brown, Eileen Fitzgerald, Dan Feedman, Dirk Perrefort and the Associated Press contributed to this report.