NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — Newtown officials and parents of children killed in last month's elementary school massacre called on lawmakers Wednesday to turn the tragedy into "the moment of transformation" by banning high-powered, military-style rifles and high-capacity magazines while providing better care to the mentally ill and requiring more background checks for gun owners.
Several hundred residents, many wearing stickers urging more gun control measures, attended a public hearing held Wednesday night in the wake of the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 first-graders and six educators dead. State lawmakers are considering possible changes to laws and policies affecting guns, mental health and school safety.
Bill Sherlach, whose wife, Mary, a school psychologist, died in the rampage, said that he respects the Second Amendment but that it was written in a long-ago era where armaments were different.
"I have no idea how long it took to reload and refire a musket," he said. "I do know that the number of shots fired in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in those few short minutes is almost incomprehensible, even in today's modern age."
Unlike a legislative subcommittee hearing held Monday at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford on gun laws, which lasted hours into the night and attracted hundreds of gun rights activists statewide, the crowd at Newtown High School on Wednesday was overwhelmingly in favor of gun control.
"Make this the time that change happens. Don't give up because it's too hard or too difficult. Make a promise to honor the lives lost at Sandy Hook and elsewhere in America by turning this tragedy into the moment of transformation that benefits us all," said Nicole Hockley. Her 6-year-old son, Dylan, was among those killed by 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who fatally shot his mother in their home before driving to the school to carry out the massacre and committing suicide.
David Wheeler, whose 6-year-old son, Benjamin, was also killed, said a more comprehensive system of identifying and monitoring individuals with mental distress needs to be created.
"That a person with these problems could live in a home where he had access to among the most powerful firearms available to non-military personnel is unacceptable," he said. "It doesn't matter to whom these weapons were registered. It doesn't matter if they were purchased legally. What matters is that it was far too easy for another mentally unbalanced, suicidal person who had violent obsessions to have easy access to unreasonably powerful weapons."
But Newtown resident Casey Khan warned that further restrictions on gun rights leave "good and lawful citizens at risk." While one of the few to speak in favor of gun rights, Khan still received applause from some in the audience.
Another resident, Mike Collins, said reducing the number of cartridges creates a vulnerability for the shooter, who has to reload, and for the people trying to defend themselves.
"I don't want to be out-gunned in a situation that I cannot walk or run away from," he said.
In response to calls from gun enthusiasts who've urged lawmakers against infringing on their Second Amendment rights, Newtown Police Chief Michael Kehoe told the lawmakers "this sacrifice is necessary and certainly warranted." Kehoe spoke of the need to reduce easy access to weapons of mass murder.
Wednesday's public hearing was organized by the General Assembly's task force on gun violence prevention and children's safety. Lawmakers hope to vote on a package of new measures around the end of February.
More details of the shooting were revealed at the hearing.
Susie Ehrens spoke of how her daughter, Emma, escaped from Sandy Hook with a group of other first-graders when the shooter paused. Emma, she said, saw her friends and teacher slaughtered before she ran past lifeless bodies and a half a mile down the road.
"The fact that my daughter survived and others didn't haunts me. That a spot where they were standing at that moment decided their fate that day, when evil (that) could have been stopped walked into their classrooms," Ehrens said.
Mary Ann Jacob, a Sandy Hook teacher, recalled hearing "hundreds of hundreds of gunshots that seemed to last forever" and crawling across the floor with 18 children to hide from the shooter.
Some in the audience didn't testify but said they felt it was important to attend.
Trish Keil and her twin sister, Helen Malyszka, two music teachers in Sandy Hook who knew many of the slain children, said they believe the tragedy will lead to change and won't be forgotten. Both support more gun control measures.
"I think it happened in Newtown for a reason and I think there is going to be major change because Newtown will not stand by and let this go," Keil said. "This is just, it's too horrific. When it's starting to affect our children, something has to be done and it's going to change."