By Kate King
STAMFORD — The Dec. 14 shootings in Newtown have attracted many newcomers to the gun-control debate, but for Lydia Douglas, gun violence has been a recurring topic of discussion.
The grandmother and lifelong Stamford resident was in middle school when her uncle was shot and killed in Bridgeport.
Years later, her cousin, who had just turned 30, was shot in the stomach and later died after he tried to break up a fight in Columbus Park. Another cousin was paralyzed after being shot as he sat in a parked car, Douglas said.
On Thursday, she attended a roundtable forum organized by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy and U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, both Connecticut Democrats, to hear what her elected representatives plan to do to keep illegal weapons off Stamford streets.
“I would like them to find out where they come from, how they’re bought and sold, and how they get into the hands of our young men,” she said.
The issue is one of many that the city’s federal, state and local officials said they plan to tackle in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which left 20 children and six educators dead. State Reps. Gerry Fox, and William Tong, both D-Stamford, and about a dozen local community leaders joined Murphy and Himes for Thursday’s discussion at the Yerwood Center.
“This is about our kids,” Tong said. “This is about the kids in Sandy Hook. It’s about the kids who come to the Yerwood Center and see the guns in their neighborhoods.”
Stamford police officers confiscated 125 illegal guns in 2012, Public Safety Director Ted Jankowski said. The department also collected 34 guns through various buyback programs and will hold another buyback from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Turn of River firehouse.
“We’re trying to solve our issues here through education, through working with the community and through enforcing the law,” Jankowski said.
Stamford saw five homicides — three of which were gun-related — in 2012, Police Chief Jon Fontneau said. In addition, several people committed suicide using guns and one person died after accidentally shooting himself in the head.
Stamford is the 14th safest city in the country, according to information released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation last summer, but has seen an increase in violent crime over the last two years. Stamford Hospital has seen a spike in gunshot wounds, up from 13 patients in 2011 to 21 in 2012, Director of Trauma Kevin Dwyer said.
“Prior to that, it was in the single digits,” Dwyer said. “It’s on the rise over the last nine years. It’s a very high concern in the medical community.”
Assault rifles like the one used at Sandy Hook have driven the debate over gun control in recent weeks, but Dwyer urged legislators to push for stricter regulations on all types of firearms.
“Seventy-one percent of gunfire mortalities come from handguns,” he said.
Jack Bryant, president of the Stamford chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also said he hopes the tragedy in Newtown brings attention to all types of gun violence.
“I’m hoping that the discussion and the laws won’t just focus on mass shootings, but on gun control — period — and how these guns get into our community,” he said.
“The environment that has armed security guards is not a conducive environment for learning,” he said. “There are so many things that could go wrong. We’re trying to keep the guns out of the schools.”
Stamford has two armed police officers permanently stationed at its two high schools and unarmed security guards at its middle schools, Fontneau said. The city also hired 12 additional unarmed security staff for its elementary schools in response to the Sandy Hook shootings, but Superintendent Winifred Hamilton has said she does not support putting armed guards in elementary schools.
Jankowski also said he does not want Stamford elementary schools to resemble fortresses.
“From a public safety perspective, we’re trying to do whatever’s necessary to protect the public, but we don’t want our schools to be prisons where children have to attend,” he said. “We want a safe learning environment.”
Fox, who serves as chairman of the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, said state legislators are pursuing several avenues as they seek to strengthen gun control laws in Connecticut. Legislation that Fox hopes to fast-track includes closing loopholes on the state’s assault weapon ban, reducing the capacity of ammunition magazines and eliminating the sale of bullets that explode on impact.
“It’s those areas we will look at together with the mental health impact and school safety,” he said.
Himes and Murphy pledged to push for stronger gun laws on a federal level, but acknowledged that they face a tougher fight from Congress and the NRA than state legislators do in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. The best hope for meaningful change in gun violence likely exists at the state and local levels, they said.
“Making sure there are real alternatives to gun violence,” Murphy said. “Infusing these communities with hope. Gun violence didn’t start on Dec. 14 in Connecticut. Gun violence is something cities in Connecticut confront every day.”
Kate.King@scni.com; 203-964-2263; http://twitter.com/kcarliniking