Violence in America rebuked at Newtown High hearing
Updated 2:51 pm, Thursday, March 7, 2013
NEWTOWN -- The people of this wounded, shattered town spoke Wednesday night.
They want major changes in gun control, improvements in school security and more effective mental health programs to help prevent future shootings.
In the soul-searching after Adam Lanza's rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School, some said the culture of violence in America -- where the Internet and video games breed isolation and feed psychopathic urges in the 21st century -- must change.
"Something needs to change," said Mary Ann Jacob, the Sandy Hook School librarian who was able to help round up children and hide in a closet to avoid Lanza. "We need to be able to send our kids to school without fear. We need to ensure that gunmen cannot get into our buildings. No one needs a gun that can kill 26 people and shoot hundreds of bullets in three minutes."
In the auditorium at Newtown High School, for hours of recollections and testimony, they said that assault-style weapons should be banned and that doctors need to help police identify mentally disturbed patients who might become the next Adam Lanza.
Some called for a greater sense of community, where neighbors know each other's names and can reach out to one another in times of trouble and distress.
Others said the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" trumps the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Bill Sherlach, whose wife Mary, the Sandy Hook Elementary School psychiatrist who was shot by Lanza, said the number of mental health professionals in schools has been cut, meaning more paperwork for those on the job and less actual contact with students.
"There is room for some sort of sanity," he said. "We need to turn off the computer games and do the homework. We know that we are the primary example for our children."
David Wheeler, whose son Benjamin was killed that day, said that it's crucial to identify and monitor people in mental distress.
"We lost our Benjamin to an unstable, suicidal individual who had access to a weapon that has no place in a home," Wheeler said, calling it "unacceptable" that Lanza had access to the weapons of his mother, even if they were legally purchased.
"The right to life trumps the right to bear arms," Wheeler said. "Let's honor the founding fathers and get our priorities straight."
Tom Swett, a Newtown High School teacher who recalled Lanza as a troubled student, said there have to be advancements in reaching the mentally ill.
"We must do better," said Police Chief Michael Kehoe. "We must be better at finding the solutions for the many problems that persist in society. It is my firm belief if enough is not done we'll see this scene replayed in our communities."
Guns are part of the problem, but a national culture of violence is another.
"It is my sincere belief that the problem is a violence problem," Kehoe said. "Certainly, we must strengthen security in schools, but it's not the antibiotic to cure what ails us."
About 500 people gathered to tell the Legislature's Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children's Safety that in the weeks since the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it has become clearer that that change has to focus on guns and mental health.
First Selectman Pat Llodra, who was given a standing ovation in the auditorium, which was about two-thirds full, said that the town is looking for lawmakers to act quickly.
"Controversy and conflict surrounds the question of what government should do," she said, charging that guns are easier to acquire than mental health care. "I cannot agree that weapons such as the Bushmaster have any legitimate role in a society that first and foremost wants to keep its citizens safe."
"This is important to us just as it is important to you," said Selectman James O. Gaston, a gun owner who opposes assault-style rifles like the Bushmaster that Lanza used to kill 20 children and six adults in Sandy Hook School.
"Meaningful gun legislation, I believe, is merited now, not later, now," Gaston said. "I would submit to you that responsible, reasonable licensing for public safety is not an infringement, it's a responsibility."
Sandy Goldsberry, whose daughter survived the massacre, said prohibiting assault-style weapons is the best first step, along with armor-piercing ammunition and large capacity clips. She also opposes arming teachers, as suggested by some gun advocates.
"We have a choice to protect our children, protect our communities or continue on the path of unending violence that led us to Dec. 14," said Eric Paradis, the father of a third-grader at Sandy Hook School.
Andres Nikitehyuk, the parent of another Sandy Hook third-grader, said he previously ignored the dangers of partially regulated firearms.
"We all wish we could run the day back and prevent the tragedy," he said, calling for a statewide ban on the construction of military-style weapons that are sold to civilians.
It wasn't until more than two hours into the hearing when a supporter of gun rights spoke up.
Mike Collins, an emergency medical technician, said law-abiding citizens shouldn't pay the price for illegal activity.
"That's what criminals do," said Collins, noting that police have not yet reported how Nancy Lanza, Adam Lanza's mother, stored the weapons that he stole after killing her.
"No gun pulls its own trigger," said Richard Fenaroli, of Newtown. "We all have a responsibility for what was happening here," he said, noting that Nancy Lanza must have been lacking something in her life to feel the need to acquire so many guns.
Jackie Villa, of Newtown, warned lawmakers that she shouldn't lose her right to have guns because of Lanza.
"On behalf of millions of people and young mothers across the United States, please protect and preserve our Second Amendment rights to have the force necessary to protect those who are indefensible."
Dr. William Begg, of Newtown, an emergency room physician who sobbed while recalling the two mortally wounded children who could not be saved at Danbury Hospital, said that in nations with tight gun control, mass murders rarely occur.
Meanwhile, in this country, gun owners are 25 times more likely to be shot with their own guns. "Please let us do some research that is real," Begg said.
He said the same people who oppose gun control seem to be the same people who want cuts in mental health programs.
Julia Wasserman, a former longtime state representative for the town who is currently on the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, called for a permanent commission to study the issues of public violence.
"Let our state be a leader," Wasserman said.
J. Brendan Sharkey, speaker of the House, recalled the Dec. 15 visit by President Barack Obama to the high school. "We truly do feel your pain," he said. "We cannot possibly understand what this community is going through, but we care very deeply about doing the right thing."
"We owe it to the town of Newtown that our first public hearing as the committee-of-the-whole, to listen to the town," said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, co-chairman of the 48-member committee.
Cafero, in an interview before the public hearing, said that while the committee is still gathering information, it's becoming apparent that young men linked to mass murders often were bullied.
"Seventy-five percent of these people have been bullied," he said. "People have to take that very seriously."
He said that revenge, long-festering ill feelings and the accumulation of anti-depressants help to trigger mass murders.
"Add low self-esteem, and that's a formula for disaster," Cafero said.
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