POLITICS
12/12/2013 08:01 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Connecticut Lawmakers Vow To Reverse 'Shame' Of Gun Control Failure

WASHINGTON -- Elizabeth Esty spent the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, in a Boston briefing for newly elected members of Congress until a phone call interrupted. There had been a shooting in Newtown, a quiet, suburban town in southwestern Connecticut that was part of the district she had been elected to serve a month earlier.

Once the situation became clearer, Esty grabbed her things, threw them into the back of her car and drove to Newtown. She arrived at the town firehouse as the last batch of parents from Sandy Hook Elementary School awaited news of their children. Moments later, Gov. Dan Malloy (D) told the families there were no more survivors. Their loved ones were dead.

"It was surreal," Esty said, recalling the moment in an interview with The Huffington Post. "Especially since now I’ve gotten to know a number of these families, so to realize that when I first met them ... at that time I’m observing these folks and seeing them as parents and brothers and sisters just ashen and in disbelief.”

Chris Murphy, Esty's predecessor, was already in Connecticut that morning to speak in Bridgeport. He was about to hop onto a train to New York City with his wife and children to check out the Christmas displays when he was informed that something awful had happened in Newtown.

The moment he heard children may be involved, Murphy got into a car with his state director and drove to the bucolic New England town 20 miles north. At the time, Murphy was the congressman representing Connecticut's 5th Congressional District, which includes Newtown, and was weeks from being sworn in as the youngest member of the U.S. Senate.

Murphy also made it to the firehouse before Malloy delivered the awful news.

"My Senate career changed before I stepped foot in the Senate," Murphy told HuffPost. "These parents are all my age. My kids are their kids' age. And so you can't help but put yourself in their position and wonder what this would be like if you were receiving that news."

A small, black plaque in remembrance of the Sandy Hook victims sits on the wall of Murphy's Washington office. It lists the names of 20 children, all age 6 or 7, and six educators killed by gunman Adam Lanza.

"There are some days that I wish that I hadn't been at that firehouse, and there are some days when I wish that I hadn't seen and heard some of the things that I saw and heard," Murphy said. "But being there probably has connected me emotionally to this issue in a way that I wouldn't have been if I had stayed away or gotten there a day later."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) also arrived in Newtown, witnessing the efforts of first responders and law enforcement officials, who he said were "devastated physically and emotionally by what they saw." He, too, was at the firehouse when the governor made the announcement.

"I saw first hand the grief and unspeakable pain suffered by those families as they emerged from the firehouse learning that their beautiful children would not be coming home that evening," the senator told HuffPost. "That memory will be forever riveted in my mind."

As lawmakers mark the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook -- either with somber moments of silence or renewed calls for gun control legislation -- Connecticut's congressional delegation will be going through a more emotional experience. To those seven members -- all Democrats -- Newtown was not just an unconscionable episode of gun violence. It was a moment that deeply strained the social fabric of communities they represent. While much of the country gradually moved on from the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, Connecticut politicians and many of their constituents remain shaken by the events of last December.

"That community is not a place you associate with gun violence and crime stories," said Rep. Joe Courtney (D). "It didn't compute. You know that community. ... I was dumbfounded."

"The impact of it is searing. It was a slaughter of innocents," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D), who said she remains in touch with some of the families who lost loved ones at Sandy Hook. The family of Vicki Soto, the 27-year-old teacher killed while protecting her students, is "still reeling from the loss," DeLauro added. "We can never heal the hole in their hearts, but they need to know that they're not alone."

Some members of the state's congressional delegation faced harder challenges than others. Esty has dealt with the task of helping the Newtown community overcome unspeakable loss, and much of her approach to serving in Congress has been shaped by her interactions with families from Sandy Hook. "I just referred back to how I would want to be treated if I were one of these parents -- how would I want the people representing me in Washington to respond?" she said.

The majority of Americans expected the response to Sandy Hook to include stricter gun laws. It had taken Lanza, a young man with severe mental health issues, less than five minutes to kill 26 people and then himself with 30-round magazines. The firearms Lanza used were registered to his mother, Nancy Lanza, who had purchased them legally. Lanza shot his mother to death in her home before he departed for the school.

In the days after the massacre, the passiveness typically associated with gun violence in America gave way to a national push for expanded background checks and a ban on assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines. President Barack Obama, fresh off his reelection, made the gun control measures the first priority of his second term.

Connecticut lawmakers fervently advocated for the bills, arguing that they would reduce gun violence and improve mental health services -- possibly preventing future Sandy Hooks. They were joined by several families from Newtown, who formed coalitions supporting stricter gun laws.

Despite widespread support from Americans, legislation to expand background checks failed to pass the Senate in April, falling short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP-led filibuster.

Members of Congress who supported expanded gun control were fuming. The Connecticut delegation had a tougher task, forced to explain to a grieving state why the government had failed to act.

"It's enormously frustrating," said Rep. Jim Himes, whose district neighbors Newtown. In the weeks after Sandy Hook, his office received an outpouring of phone calls and emails from constituents in Fairfield County -- an area Himes characterized as home to affluent suburbanites who weren't ordinarily engaged in politics. Himes said he "feels a sense of shame" over Congress' failure when he faces constituents back home.

"I always feel the sense of embarrassment that, at the federal level, we've been incapable of changing the environment in any way that would allow us to push some gun safety measures," Himes said.

Murphy said the failure of the background checks bill in April "devastated" Newtown families, but they helped create a political infrastructure organized around gun violence prevention.

"The NRA existed in a vacuum for decades -- they don't anymore," Murphy said. "These families were transformed into advocates for a lifetime, not just for a short few months. They reminded me that they weren't going away, nor should I."

Back in Connecticut, state lawmakers forged ahead. The state Legislature passed a comprehensive gun control package that was signed into law by Malloy in April. The reforms require background checks for private gun sales, ban magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds, and expand the type of guns covered by the state's existing assault weapons ban. It also created a $15 million fund to help schools improve security.

Members of the Connecticut congressional delegation said they remain committed to federal reforms.

"History sometimes takes a while to move," Courtney said. He added that he was particularly frustrated that the House neither held congressional hearings on gun violence, nor was allowed by House leaders to vote on any gun-related bills.

"If a universal background checks bill were brought to the floor of the House, it would pass," said Rep. John Larson.

Many of Connecticut's members of Congress worked together earlier in the state Legislature and were friends prior to Newtown. But the shared trauma of that day in December bonded them more tightly as they committed parts of their careers to tackling gun violence.

Larson said the group became "closer and more determined," and highlighted the significance of Esty's role as a vice chair on the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force that was established after the shooting.

As a freshman congresswoman, Esty said the support of her colleagues was critical to helping her deal with the enormity of Newtown. "It was traumatizing for the whole state," she said. "'We are Newtown' is truly how I think we all feel in Connecticut."

Himes said the shooting forced "a whole different way of coming together" for members of the congressional delegation. "Forget about policy," he said. 'Our hearts were broken."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of the briefing Elizabeth Esty attended on Dec. 14, 2012. It was in Boston, not Washington. The story has also been updated to clarify that Esty did not know the families of the slain children prior to the Sandy Hook shooting.

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