Newtown teaches Washington what real loss looks like

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Five Newtown, Conn., teachers traveled to Capitol Hill this week with dozens of neighbors and shared heart-wrenching personal stories tied to the December massacre of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School—stories they hope will prod Congress to enact commonsense gun safety laws.

Valerie LeblancNewtown teacher Valerie LeBlanc speaks at a Capitol Hill news conference on gun safety.

The educators, all members of the Newtown Federation of Teachers, were part of what was a cross section of the Newtown community: parents, students, spiritual leaders, first responders, trauma doctors and other residents. They met with more than a dozen House and Senate representatives and their staffs, and they offered compelling testimony in support of the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 and other steps to protect American communities from the devastation that Newtown suffered—tragedies that families and neighborhoods across America continue to suffer because weapons designed for the battlefield find their way into the hands of violent and disturbed individuals.

The AFT members—Valerie LeBlanc and Mary Connolly, both of whom teach at Newtown Middle School; and Jon Hull, Lil Martenson and Carla Tischio, who teach at Reed Intermediate School—also took part in a news conference immediately following a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the assault weapons bill, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). The two days of action on Capitol Hill by the people of Newtown were supported by the AFT and our affiliates, along with several other groups, including the Newtown Action Alliance, an ad hoc citizens group formed following the Dec. 14 killings; the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence; and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

The Newtown shootings "have ripped the sense of safety and security from the community," said LeBlanc, who is also treasurer for the Newtown Federation of Teachers. "We are here to give educators a voice" in this fundamental public safety issue. "Some good must come from Dec. 14. That must begin here in Washington."

Newtown video

The Newtown delegation reminded lawmakers that a majority of Americans believe it is the time for Congress to act. In one-on-one meetings and in testimony, they voiced support for a ban on the manufacture of assault weapons, laws against gun trafficking and high-capacity ammunition clips, comprehensive mental health services and other measures to protect public safety.

"How can we help you?" was a constant question that Po Murray, head of the Newtown Action Alliance, asked lawmakers in meetings. Members of the group worked to convince senators and representatives that new gun safety legislation was a "moral imperative," rather than just the political topic du jour. They went on to offer stories that underscored what real risk and real loss look like—how it was different from nasty ads from the NRA, fringe challenges in a party primary, and other matters that often consume Congress' attention and paralyze lawmakers into inaction.

No one made that case more compellingly and poignantly than Neil Heslin, the father of Jesse, a 6-year-old boy who died in a Sandy Hook first-grade classroom.

"Jesse was the love of my life. He was the only family I have left," said Heslin, choking back tears in testimony before the Senate panel. "I'm not here for the sympathy," he said, "I'm here to speak up for my son. ... I'm his voice."

It was at least the sixth time in less than two days that Heslin had struggled to share the story of his son's death, hoping to persuade lawmakers to support new gun laws and to honor what he believed was Jesse's last wish. In one-on-one conversations with members of Congress and their staff, Heslin described how Sandy Hook survivors would later tell him how after being grazed by a first bullet, his son turned to the other first-graders and told them to run. The 6-year-old was then shot and killed.

Neil HeslinNeil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son Jesse was killed at Sandy Hook, testifies at the Senate.

"I know my son. I know, when he turned and looked straight at that coward, his last thought would have been, 'My Dad will take care of you,' " Heslin explained at one visit. Keeping his son's story alive, the man said, was now the only way left to honor Jesse's wish—and a way to spare other parents from going through the same horror.

Donna Soto, the mother of Victoria Soto, the 27-year-old teacher who died trying to protect her first-graders at Sandy Hook, also participated in the visits with Congress. Soto told lawmakers how she tries to sleep at night and can't turn off a movie that plays in her mind—the sequence of events on the day she lost her daughter. It's not a nightmare but something all too real, the mother said. Every night, that movie rolls and "it just won't stop."

Many members of the Newtown group pointed out that the tragic effects are lasting and extend well beyond the immediate victims. One woman, the mother of a third-grader who was in the corridor at Sandy Hook and was spared by chance, told of how a misplaced feeling of guilt was making recovery difficult for her child and many others in the community. "I should have been number 27," her son said to her a few days after the shooting.

At the visits with lawmakers, several Newtown residents spoke about how life had changed permanently since the shootings. One woman said she was driving through Newtown in late February and passed a car in the left-turn lane on the opposite side. The woman in that car was sobbing uncontrollably, and her face was wracked with pain. After Sandy Hook, nobody in Newtown would need to ask why, she said.

Dr. William Begg, a trauma doctor and EMS director at a hospital outside Newtown, also testified before the Senate committee. He choked back tears as he explained how the wounds were not survivable, not for 6- and 7-year-old bodies shot multiple times, not when they are inflicted by a semiautomatic weapon and ammunition designed for the battlefield.

"People say that the overall number of assault weapons deaths is relatively small," said Begg, "but please don't tell that to the people of Tucson or Aurora or Columbine or Virginia Tech ... and don't tell that to the people of Newtown." [Mike Rose/photos by Michael Campbell/video by Matthew Jones and Brett Sherman]

February 28, 2013