HARTFORD, Conn. — Thousands of people, including some first-time activists moved by the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, rallied at Connecticut's state Capitol on Thursday demanding lawmakers toughen gun laws.
Holding signs that read: "We are Sandy Hook. We deserve change" and "Let's get this done," many in crowd — estimated by the state Capitol Police at 5,500 — said they wanted to make sure their opinions were heard. They said they did not want them overshadowed by vocal gun rights advocates who've successfully defeated gun control measures in Connecticut in the past, such as limits on the size of ammunition magazines.
"We have reached a tipping point Connecticut. Our hearts are broken," said Nancy Lefkowitz, one of two mothers who formed the grassroots organization March for Change and helped organize the Valentine's Day rally.
The rally came exactly two months after a man went on a shooting rampage at the elementary school in Newtown before taking his own life.
Twenty-four-year-old Jillian Soto pleaded with policymakers to not forget the six educators and 20 first-graders who were killed and immediately pass gun reform legislation. Her sister, Victoria Soto, was one of the teachers killed. She said no one else needs to lose a family member.
"It's not about political party or hidden agendas. It's about life," she said. "And my life and the lives of so many are now changed forever because of what guns can do in the wrong hands."
In an interview before the rally, Soto said she felt the need to publicly come forward on her sister's behalf, keeping her memory alive and demanding a change in gun laws.
"She fought to save her children in her classroom," Soto said. "And I'm here fighting for the same thing, to save everybody's lives here, because we need to do something to change."
Thursday's event, one of the larger state Capitol rallies in recent years, comes as a special bipartisan task force created by the General Assembly attempts to reach consensus on possible law and policy changes affecting guns, mental health and school security. Legislators hope to vote on a package of recommendations later this month or early March.
While both Democratic and Republican state politicians appeared at the rally, including Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, it's not a given there will be bipartisan support for many of the proposals pushed by rally attendees. They include a ban on high-capacity magazines and all military-style assault weapons, annual registration renewals for handguns, universal background checks and mandatory safe storage of weapons.
One key GOP leader, House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero Jr., a member of the bipartisan task force, declined to attend, saying he felt it was inappropriate to appear at any rally touting a specific legislative agenda as the task force is still deliberating. Republican Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, whose district includes Newtown, has not committed his support to the March for Change group's agenda. He was interrupted by shouts of "pass the law" when he spoke generally about the importance of choosing love instead of a culture of violence in society.
"Democracy is great thing. People can come and march on their Capitol and their elected representatives and say what they say. If people want to heckle, that's fine," McKinney said afterward. "It is an example, though, of why sometimes laws don't get passed. Because people aren't willing to sit down and listen to perhaps another side or other sides and talk with one another."
Julius Magyari of Stamford, a gun rights advocate who quietly sat in a lawn chair at the back of the rally, said there are some common sense responses to the Newtown shooting, such as improving mental health screening and required screenings for ammunition purchasers. But Magayari, who competes in shooting events, is concerned lawmakers are being swayed by the emotions of the Newtown shooting and will pass laws that won't work or will harm lawful gun owners.
Magyari also attended a recent gun rights rally at the Capitol that drew more than 2,000 people and a daylong legislative hearing on guns. He said he has doubts lawmakers will pass a truly bipartisan plan and believes many already have made up their minds.
"The people who are against it, are against it," he said, referring to gun rights. "They're not listening to who is coming in."
Ron Pinciaro, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, said he is optimistic state lawmakers will reach a bipartisan deal on gun control measures because of public pressure to act. He said much of that pressure is coming from people who've never gotten involved in the political process before.
"Maybe they've voted, but really not much more than that. But they're moved. They're very moved and they want something done," he said. "And at the end of the day, I think the legislators have to listen, will listen. And it's a bipartisan thing because we're talking about our children now."
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