Moved by the deaths of 20 students and six educators in the horrific shootings Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, elected officials and scores of local parents gathered Monday for an emotional public forum at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church to voice support for new gun-control laws and to consider tougher school security measures.
Nancy Lefkowitz and Meg Staunton, two mothers of children in Fairfield's public school system, organized the event. They are advocating for new state legislation that would ban large-capacity ammunition magazines, which police said were used in the assault rifle wielded by gunman Adam Lanza in Newtown. To rally support for that proposed law and raise general awareness about gun violence, they plan to help lead a rally at the state Capitol on March 14, the three-month anniversary of the Newtown tragedy.
"I'm here today as a mother," Lefkowitz said. "When I don't know what else to do in times of crisis, I organize. What we can all agree on is that we want our children to be safe."
A number of legislators, including U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, attended the forum.
Himes expressed support for banning large-capacity magazines, as well as other tighter gun-control laws, including a new federal assault weapons ban and the end of "gun show loopholes," which allow the sale of firearms without background checks.
"The conversation has begun to shift into what do we do to channel the anger and grief and despondency that we feel," Himes said. "We need to be prepared for a sustained effort to bring some sanity to our communities. It needs to be about guns -- yes it does -- and it also needs to be a broader discussion than that."
Himes reported that he is co-sponsoring legislation with Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a Democratic congresswoman from New York, to outlaw magazines with capacities of more than 10 rounds.
"We can do better," Himes said. "Now I'm going to raise hell about it. And we're going to need your help."
Connecticut's congressional delegation planned to convene Monday night on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and to propose a resolution to memorialize the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy, Himes added.
Westport's two state representatives, Democrat Jonathan Steinberg and Republican Gail Lavielle, both attended the forum. They were joined by two of their legislative colleagues from Fairfield, Democrat Kim Fawcett and Republican Tony Hwang
"Even though I'm generally against increasing the tax burden on the people of the state of Connecticut, I'm willing to make an exception in this case, said Steinberg. "Why don't we tax these assault weapons that have been grandfathered and people are allowed to own them to the point that it hurts to own them?"
Connecticut already has some of the toughest gun-control laws in the nation. It has an assault weapons ban and does not allow gun show loopholes. It also ranks as the state with the fifth-lowest rate of gun-caused deaths and among the five states with the strongest gun laws in the country, according to Ron Pinciaro, executive director of the Fairfield-based CT Against Gun Violence, an organization that works to reduce gun violence through education and legislative advocacy. But the state does allow large-capacity magazines.
"What we're really faced with is not a single law; it's changing the culture," said Pinciaro "It's the kind of battle that was fought with the tobacco industry to stop smoking. That took time, but I think you can see that it worked."
While many, if not most, of the forum's participants appeared to support tighter gun-control laws at the state and federal levels, they expressed differing viewpoints about school safety. While voicing support for robust campus security, Himes told the audience he would not want schools to become "fortresses."
Asked by a Weston parent of school-age children, Ilana Escandon, about the prospect of placing security guards in local schools, Himes recounted a conversation he had Sunday with a state trooper in Newtown, who told Himes that some state law-enforcement personnel likely would have been killed had they been at Sandy Hook Elementary when the gunman shot his way into the school.
"But not 20 children," Escandon replied.
Other parents at the forum expressed similar concerns.
"One thing we can all agree completely is the security of our kids in schools," said Fairfield resident Paul McMahon, the father of three children in Fairfield public schools. "If you could create a magic button that hypothetically could make our kids 100 percent safe in school, I don't think there's anyone here who wouldn't pay what that price was."
Pinciaro appeared reluctant to back a drastic escalation in school security, recalling his shock at seeing armed guards in a Bridgeport high school.
"I don't want to see it ever get to that point," he said.
Local school board members are also grappling with questions about the protection of pupils during the school day.
"I certainly don't think we should arm the teachers and I don't want our schools to become fortresses," said Perry Liu, a member of the Fairfield Board of Education. "But I do wonder if we need some type of security at our schools now."
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