The Representative Town Meeting voted resoundingly Tuesday night to support a citizens' petition calling for new gun-control measures, an endorsement partially overshadowed by a local woman, known for her peace advocacy, brought a BB rifle and ammunition to the Town Hall meeting.
The petition called for the RTM to ask President Barack Obama and federal and state legislators to enact a ban on automatic and semi-automatic assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines and end "gun show loopholes."
"Tonight we have an opportunity to send a strong message to Washington and to our representatives in Hartford that our town, Westport, Connecticut, wants common-sense gun laws," said Liz Milwe, the lead petitioner and a former RTM member.
The petition is symbolic and does not have the force of law.
But other supporters of the initiative echoed Milwe's argument that a symbolic sense-of-the meeting resolution passed by the RTM would send a powerful message to state and federal lawmakers and neighboring communities about the town's position on gun control in the aftermath of the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
Woman brings rifle to meeting
Estelle Margolis, the 86-year-old Westport woman who brought the rifle and ammunition to the RTM session, has been active in local anti-war causes for years. She and her late husband, Emanuel Margolis, a well-known civil-rights lawyer, had organized regular peace vigils at the Post Road bridge downtown.
She apparently brought the rifle and ammunition to the meeting with the intention of underscoring how easily accessible firearms are.
She was escorted from Town Hall without incident before she had a chance to speak on the gun-control petition, and charged with second-degree breach of peace.
Parental, clergy support
More than 650 town residents have signed the gun-control advocates' petition, according to Milwe. Since the Newtown tragedy, gun-violence prevention has emerged as a public policy priority for many town residents. The issue appears to have particularly galvanized a large number of Westport parents.
"The only difference between Newtown and Westport is our zip code," said Medha Thomas, the mother of a first-grader. "Sandy Hook Elementary looks exactly like Saugatuck [Elementary] and Kings Highway [Elementary School] and it could have been Long Lots [Elementary]. It's important with this being so close to home that we acknowledge this and make a stand and say that this is how we as Westport residents feel and this is what we support."
The petition has also picked up the unanimous endorsement of members of the Interfaith Clergy Association of Westport and Weston, according to the Rev. Frank Hall, the senior minister at the Unitarian Church in Westport.
"The comments I hear over and over have to do with the insanity of the lack of control over automatic, semi-automatic [guns], ammunition clips and so forth," Hall said. "People need to feel that they have some hope that something will happen, that someone will do something."
Opponents: Petition exploits tragedy
Only a few people in the audience expressed opposition to the RTM's approval of the petition.
Iain Bruce argued that the RTM's approval of a sense-of-the-meeting resolution on gun control would exploit the deaths of the 20 first-grade children who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. As a comparison, he discussed the public response in Canada following the 2010 death of his 18-year-old son, Cameron, who died after he fell while drinking from a sixth-floor dormitory window at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.
"Every statement of someone, a university administrator, a coroner, a police officer, a politician, the editor of Canada's largest circulation newspaper, to the effect that he wanted to make sure that my son had not died in vain -- comments I just heard made in connection with Newtown -- was a cruel, brutal, virtually inhuman blow to my head, my heart and my guts," Bruce said. "You can tell yourselves all day long that you are not exploiting the deaths of children by pursuing this resolution, but the fact is you are and you will be."
Jim Whamond said he opposed the petition because of his concerns about the impact of enacting new gun-control measures on individual rights.
"Many feel that new gun restrictions are either reasonable or common-sense and will bring them safety and security," he said. "Others, myself included, worry about the erosion of liberty and government infringement upon law-abiding citizens associated with further gun restrictions ... I'm here to support the concept the liberty and keeping government out of the lives of law-abiding citizens."
Officials strongly back petition
First Selectman Gordon Joseloff was among the officials expressing support for the petition's goals.
"I'm not in favor generally of bringing sense-of-the-meeting resolutions to the RTM on international issues," he said. "But, as [state Rep.] Jonathan Steinberg said, there is time for exceptions and this is an exception. It's a very important matter. Westport does need to take a stand".
RTM members, meanwhile, quickly coalesced to support the petition.
"I believe that this town and this body have a responsibility to do what's right to act in response to our wounded neighbor, to help forward the conversation about ending gun violence and help push ideas into action," said Melissa Kane, District 3, and a principal petitioner. "It is not about second-amendment rights; it is about requesting deliberation of sensible legislation, which should have been enacted or not allowed to expire a long time ago."
A number of Kane's RTM colleagues also endorsed the initiative.
"I want to be able to look in the mirror tomorrow morning when I shave to say I had the courage to stand up and say, `These assault weapons should be banned,' " said Lou Mall, District 2. "I'm not against gun ownership, I'm against assault weapons. Because that's what they do -- they assault, they terrorize us."
The RTM voted 27-1, with three abstentions to approve the sense-of-the-meeting resolution supporting the petition. Dick Lowenstein, District 5, was the sole RTM member to vote against supporting the petition.
"It's noble, it's well-meaning, but it doesn't do anything," Lowenstein said. "I think getting people to write letters to the state legislature and the federal legislature is the most important thing that we can do."
Three of the four members of Westport's delegation in the state General Assembly -- state Reps. Jonathan Steinberg and Gail Lavielle and state Sen. Toni Boucher -- attended the meeting. Each expressed support for the petition's objectives.
"I applaud your whole initiative in general," said Lavielle, a Republican, whose district includes part of Westport west of the Saugatuck River. "We have the serious responsibility to represent you in making these decisions and we could do it only if we know and understand what you're thinking."
The gun-control petition is not the first time the RTM has considered a gun-control proposal. In 1999, the RTM unanimously rejected a citizens' petition calling for an ordinance to ban handgun ownership in Westport, except in cases where residents expected to be in "mortal danger from certain persons."
The RTM has occasionally weighed in on issues extending beyond Westport. In 1969, it approved by a 17-15 margin a resolution calling on President Richard Nixon and Congress to "take immediate action to withdraw from the war" in Vietnam.
email@example.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott