Dave Wheeler, whose son Benjamin died at Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14, quoted a founding father at a public hearing in Newtown, Conn., on Wednesday. "Thomas Jefferson described our inalienable rights as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," Wheeler said. "I do no think the order of those important words was haphazard and casual. The liberty of any person to own a military assault weapon and high-capacity magazine and to keep them in their home is second to the right of my son to his life."
Wheeler was one of more than 100 parents, police officers, clergy members and Newtown residents who spoke at the fourth and final public hearing held by the Connecticut legislature's Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence and Children's Safety. While the first three hearings covered school safety, gun violence and mental health, respectively, Wednesday's hearing provided an opportunity to address any of those subjects.
As with the earlier hearing on gun violence, opinions were mixed on whether the legislature should pass stricter gun control measures, like a ban on semi-automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines. But none of the speakers whose children died in the shooting opposed such measures, and some vehemently argued in favor of them.
"I tried to think of a reason why we would need guns and weapons like that for hunting, and the only thing I could think of is maybe deer management," said Neil Heslin whose 6-year-old son Jesse was a victim. "I ask that we ban those weapons and I ask that we look more into mental health, education and the people who have those weapons. There should be strict background checks."
"I am a gun owner, Rachel enjoyed shooting as well," said Peter Paradis, whose 29-year-old daughter Rachel died at the school. "We don't need 30-round clips to kill a deer, we don't need AR-style rifles to go target shooting. We need action."
The hearing was held in a crowded auditorium of Newtown High School, where President Barack Obama met with the families of victims days after the attack. John McKinney, a Republican state senator whose district includes Newtown, moderated the remarks. He asked that the audience refrain from applauding -- a request that was ignored.
Some speakers received standing ovations, and even those who spoke against gun control were applauded. "Military weapons and weapons with high-capacity magazines can help in repelling a home assault," said Casey Khan, a Newtown parent and former Marine. "While on its face it may seem ridiculous" to own such weapons in a wealthy place like Newtown, he said, "it is not ridiculous for those who live amidst the dangers of the inner-cities and along the Mexican border."
"I too was a military member," said Eric Paradis, who spoke after Khan. "I know these weapons do not belong in our homes. They do belong in our armories as part of our well-regulated militias.
"We can't let the gun lobbies corporate interests decide our path for us," Paradis added.
The hearing was held on a day when former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), NRA head Wayne LaPierre, and other high-profile figures in the gun debate spoke at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington.
The Newtown hearing, along with parents of Sandy Hook students, featured Brian Shimer, an emergency medical technician and a first responder, who insisted that "neither the size of the magazine nor the style of the rifle will affect the actions of the evil."
Bill Begg, an emergency room doctor who tended to the bodies of victims, choked up while urging the legislators to ban assault weapons and to refrain from cutting funds for mental health services. "Twenty years in the E.R., I never broke a tear," he said. "But this has affected me."
Halfway through the meeting, scheduled to end at midnight, the legislators turned the microphone over to any members of the community who wanted to speak. By then, the scheduled speakers had already suggested a wide range of measures, from tightening the existing gun-control laws to helping police monitor the activities of people deemed potentially dangerous.
"I just want you to thank you for coming to us," said Richard Marato, whose daughter survived the shooting. "Our society is so saturated with guns and violence I don't think any one thing can help."
The task force is expected to deliver its proposals to the legislature for a vote in February. Recordings of each of the hearings are available on The Connecticut Network's website.
Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly spelled Brian Shimer's last name as Chalmers.