HARTFORD, Conn. Parents of children killed in the Newtown school shooting called for better enforcement of gun laws and tougher penalties for violators Monday at a hearing that revealed the divide in the gun-control debate, with advocates for gun rights shouting at the father of one 6-year-old victim.
Neil Heslin, whose son Jesse was killed in last month's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, asked people in the room to put themselves in his position as he questioned the need for any civilian to own semiautomatic, military-style weapons.
"It's not a good feeling. Not a good feeling to look at your child laying in a casket or looking at your child with a bullet wound to the forehead. It's a real sad thing," said Heslin, who held up a large framed photograph of himself and his son.
A handful of people at the packed legislative hearing then shouted about their Second Amendment rights when Heslin asked if anyone could provide a reason for a civilian to own an assault-style weapon.
"We're all entitled to our own opinions and I respect their opinions and their thoughts," Heslin said. "But I wish they'd respect mine and give it a little bit of thought."
The hearing by a legislative subcommittee reviewing gun laws offered the first public testimony by family members of those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, where a gunman slaughtered 20 first-grade children and six women. Adam Lanza had killed his mother in their home across town and then drove to the school to carry out the shooting before committing suicide. The testimony was expected to continue late into the night.
Members of the Connecticut State Police firearms training unit brought weapons to the hearing to provide state lawmakers with a short tutorial on what's legal and illegal under the state's current assault weapons ban, passed in 1993. The group included an AR-15, the same type of rifle that was used in the Sandy Hook shooting.
Many gun rights advocates, wearing yellow stickers that read: "Another Responsible Gun Owner," were among the estimated 2,000 people at the hearing. Metal detectors were installed at the entrance to the Legislative Office Building, and some people waited as long as two hours to get into the building in Hartford.
Many spoke about the need to protect their rights and their families' safety.
"The Second Amendment does not protect our right to hunt deer," said Andrew Hesse of Middletown. "It protects our right to self-preservation and preservation of our family. The right to bear arms."
Elizabeth Drysdale, a single mother from Waterbury, spoke of three recent incidents that caused her to fear for her safety. She said she should be able to choose the size of magazine and type of firearm to defend herself.
"Don't my children and I deserve your support and consideration to be safe," she asked lawmakers.
Judy Aron of West Hartford said bills such as those requiring gun owners to have liability insurance and ammunition taxes only harm lawful gun owners.
"Every gun owner did not pull the trigger that was pulled by Adam Lanza, she said.
The state's gun manufacturers, meanwhile, urged the subcommittee to not support legislation that could put the state's historic gun manufacturing industry at risk.
Mark Mattioli, whose 6-year-old son James was killed at Sandy Hook, got a standing ovation when he said there are plenty of gun laws but they're not properly enforced. He urged lawmakers to address the culture of violence.
"It's a simple concept. We need civility across our nation," he said. "What we're seeing are symptoms of a bigger problem. This is a symptom. The problem is not gun laws. The problem is a lack of civility."
Two Southbury natives who survived a mass shooting last year at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., urged lawmakers to address online, private guns sales that don't require background checks. Stephen Barton and Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent also want to require background checks for purchases of so-called long guns and not just handguns.
State Rep. Arthur O'Neill, R-Southbury, who has known Rodriguez-Torrent since he was a child, predicted state lawmakers will reach a compromise on guns.
He said lawmakers' minds have changed since the Dec. 14 school massacre.
"Dec. 13 was one way of looking at the world, and Dec. 15 is a different way of looking at the world," he said.