HARTFORD, Conn. — Emotionally drained and weary family members of the Newtown shooting victims, thrust into a new role as gun control lobbyists, said they’re disappointed but undaunted by the U.S. Senate’s rejection Wednesday of an amendment expanding background checks for gun purchases.
Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son Jesse Lewis was among the 20 first graders and six educators killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, said he has spent the past two weeks in Washington, D.C. trying to persuade senators to pass the compromise legislation.
“It’s discouraging what happened today, but it’s just the beginning and I feel confident in the long run, and I know in the long run, changes will happen,” Heslin said during a conference call with Connecticut U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy. “It’s just a start and we’re here to stay.”
Carlee Soto’s older sister Victoria Soto was a teacher slain at Sandy Hook. She described how the families’ efforts to lobby the U.S. Senate have been “extremely exhausting” for everyone.
“We’ve been down here since Sunday night, talking to senators, talking to their staff members, telling our story,” she said. “We don’t get to grieve in private. We don’t get to grieve with our families at home. We’re here, grieving in public, trying to show the world that change needs to happen.”
Appearing with President Barack Obama, Mark Barden, whose 7-year-old son Daniel was killed during the massacre, acknowledged that the expanded background checks proposal wouldn’t have saved Daniel. However, he said the proposal has strong public support and would have ultimately saved lives.
“We return home for now, disappointed but not defeated. We return home with a determination that change will happen. Maybe not today, but soon,” he said. “We will keep moving forward.”
Many of the same family members had lobbied Connecticut lawmakers earlier this month to pass bipartisan legislation that includes sweeping gun control changes, including a ban on high capacity ammunition magazines and an expanded assault weapons ban.
State officials reacted Wednesday with shock, disappointment and anger to the U.S. Senate’s rejection of a background check proposal some said paled in comparison to what Connecticut has enacted.
“Universal background checks? No? I don’t get it. I don’t get it,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero Jr., a Republican from Norwalk. “And I say that with utmost respect. I just don’t understand how you could vote no.”
Both Democrats and Republicans in Connecticut had voiced support for federal legislation, often making the argument that whatever laws passed in Connecticut could prove ineffective without tougher federal laws on the books.
The background check measure commanded a majority of senators, 54-46, but that was well short of the 60 votes needed to advance. Forty-one Republicans and five Democrats sided to scuttle the plan.
Newtown First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra, a Republican, said she was disappointed by the Senate action on the background check proposal, calling it “heartbreaking” in an email to The Associated Press.
“Polls over the past weeks have consistently shown that 87 percent of Americans supported the proposed extension of background checks,” she said. “The compromise bill would have provided some additional protections against the possibility of guns coming into the hands of persons who should not have access to weapons.”
Llodra said she was proud of the Newtown families and organizations that have “worked tirelessly to maintain the country’s focus on the need for gun-control change.” She said their courage, dignity and integrity cannot be denied.
“I am very proud of them and dismayed that more senators could not see the merits of their actions and of their arguments,” she said, adding how it’s important not to abandon their resolve. “We lost this battle, but the war is not over.”
Connecticut House Majority Leader Joseph Aresimowicz, a Democrat from Berlin, said he was very angry with the vote. He had met with some of the same families who traveled to Washington and couldn’t understand how senators weren’t swayed by their personal stories.
“I think of Miss. Hockley a lot,” he said of Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son, Dylan, was killed at Sandy Hook. “How they could look and meet her and see the pain in her face and not do anything? I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it.”
Murphy posted on Twitter how he had witnessed “cowardice” on the Senate floor, while his colleague, Blumenthal, called the amendment’s defeat due to the 60-vote filibuster rule “a sad and shameful moment for democracy.”
Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said senators who voted against the measure “should be ashamed of themselves.”
“There is much more than needs to be done on the issue of gun violence prevention,” he said in a written statement. “But when the Senate cannot come together on an issue that is supported by the vast majority of Americans, there is little to no hope that common sense will prevail.”