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Thousands rally in Hartford for gun control

By Johanna Somers

Publication: theday.com

Published February 14. 2013 12:00PM   Updated February 15. 2013 12:20PM
Jessica Hill/AP Photo
Jillian Soto, sister of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim Victoria Soto, left, speaks Thursday as her cousin Heather Cronk, right, holds a photograph of Soto during a rally at the Capitol in Hartford. Thousands turned out to urge lawmakers to toughen gun laws in light of the Dec. 14 elementary school shootings in Newtown that left 26 students and educators dead.
Two months after Newtown shootings, event draws more than 5,000 to state Capitol

Hartford — More than 5,000 people gathered at the state Capitol on Valentine's Day, waving signs that read, "Newtown moms for change," "sensible gun control" and "NRA kills our kids."

"I came out today with my son because I think it is important that we share our voice that this idea that anybody can go and buy these kinds of weapons of destruction, and my son's life is at risk, is insane to me, and I have to let our legislators know this is wrong," said Lori Brant, of the greater Waterbury area.

State leaders, from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman to Attorney General George Jepsen, spoke at the March for Change rally in favor of "common sense" gun laws. Family members who lost relatives to gun violence said it was time for change. Survivors of gun violence said momentum was building but the public would have to march for change the next day and each day after that to keep the momentum going.

March for Change rally co-founder Nancy Lefkowitz said the group also was marching for those who lost their lives before the Dec. 14 Newtown tragedy and since. The group works with Connecticut Against Gun Violence and is asking for a ban on high-capacity magazines and military-style assault weapons, she said. The group also wants universal background checks, annual registration renewals for handguns and safe storage of all guns.

There are more than 30,000 gun deaths and 12,000 to 14,000 gun homicides per year, according to Jepsen; besides gun control laws, social attitudes need to change, he said.

"The best form of gun control is when a man looks in the mirror and questions keeping a gun in the home that children might find," Jepsen said.

Malloy thanked President Barack Obama for saying in his State of the Union address Tuesday that the people of Newtown deserved a vote on gun control.

"When people will block an up-or-down vote from a common sense principle that is supported overwhelmingly by the citizens of the U.S. ... something is wrong with our politics when we cannot vote on what we need to do in this nation," Malloy said.

Actress Christine Baranski, who raised her daughters in a rural town not far from Newtown, read a speech on behalf of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to remind the public he was pushing for change at the national level.

"As you march in support of the ban on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, I am working with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and other colleagues to achieve that goal," she read.

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said those in favor of gun control should keep contacting state legislators in order for their voices to be heard. In the halls of the state Capitol, the message is that for every one email legislators get in favor of gun control, they receive 100 that are opposed to tightening gun laws, she said.

"They know this is the right thing; they are horrified by what has happened, but they need us standing there with them, and we need to be quiet no longer. Today is our day," she said.

State Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said he would do everything he could to move the "common sense majority" forward to get the weapons out of the hands of those who could harm children. State Sen. John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said he was lucky to represent Fairfield, home of the co-founders of March for Change.

"Beyond any laws that we may pass, each one of us can make a difference in making our society better," he said.

Unlike Washington, D.C., he said, where there is gridlock between Republicans and Democrats, legislators in Connecticut work together.

"What we need is to demand that our representatives in Washington take a lesson from our lead and work together," McKinney said.

Jillian Soto, sister of Newtown teacher Victoria Soto who was killed in the shootings, said she was never interested in the issue of gun control before her sister was murdered.

"You never think it is going to hit home," she said. She came to Hartford to keep her sister's name out there and demand change, she said.

Vicki was silly, hard-working and loved her life, Soto said. Celebrities have called her family and thousands of people have written to praise Vicki for risking her life and saving 11 children, Jillian Soto said.

"For me, Vicki was a hero long before Sandy Hook. She didn't need to die to prove that to me," she said.

On behalf of her sister, Jillian Soto asked for a "real" assault-style weapons ban, for magazines to be limited to 10 rounds and for gun-sale loopholes to be closed.

"Nothing I can ever say or do will ever bring her back, but I don't want this to happen to anyone else," Jillian Soto said.

Robert Thomson, whose 14-year-old son was fatally shot in the back of the head on the streets of Bridgeport a little more than a year ago, said, "My prayers go out to the families of Newtown, but in these urban cities, we are confronted with this problem every day."

Something has to be done, he said — these children are not reaching their full potential, they are not reaching adulthood, he said.

Colin Goddard, survivor of the Virginia Tech massacre and an advocate for reviving the expired federal Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act — the so-called Brady Bill — said the people of Connecticut are not alone in this fight. He was in the halls of U.S. Congress just Wednesday with more than 100 other gun violence victims lobbying for change, he said.

"We must challenge any politician who thinks it is easier to ask an elementary school teacher to stand up to a gunman with an AR-15 than it is to ask that politician to stand up to a gun lobbyist with a checkbook," he said.

At the end of the rally, Brant said she was hopeful change would come.

"I think today's spirit will launch everybody and say, as a group, we can do this," she said.

Her son, Camron Brant, 9, said he designed a sign for the rally that included the name of his family friend, Benjamin Wheeler, who died at Sandy Hook.

"In memory of Benny who was killed by a big gun," it read. The other side read, "I don't trust the public to have big guns."

j.somers@theday.com

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