NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — Newtown officials and parents of children killed in last month's elementary school massacre, often in emotional testimony, called on state lawmakers Wednesday night to turn the tragedy into "a moment of transformation" by banning high-powered, military-style rifles and high-capacity magazines while providing better care to the mentally ill.
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. 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.
"Turn this tragedy into a moment of transformation," said Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son, Dylan, was among those killed by 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who fatally shot his mother in their home and then drove to the school to carry out the massacre before committing suicide.
David Wheeler, whose 6-year-old son, Benjamin, was killed at Sandy Hook, 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.
"The leaders of the Connecticut state legislature want to respond in a thoughtful way that transcends politics," said Senate President Donald Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.
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. Ehrens said the nation should be ashamed of itself after so many mass shootings.
"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.