By Mark Pazniokas
Newtown -- In a hushed auditorium, harshly lit for television, the families and neighbors of Sandy Hook's lost children told visiting legislators Monday night to take a stand against gun violence, not always prescribing how.
"You are our elected officials," said Nicole Hockley, who last held the hand of her 6-year-old son, Dylan, as he lay in a small casket. "It is your duty to create and enforce the laws that protect and help us, using common sense, morals and a sense of humanity to guide you."
By the hundreds, her neighbors rose and embraced her with applause, as did the legislators. So went the routine all night, where residents aching for gun control or better mental health screening had their say, then left to applause.
Ardent opponents of gun control spoke later, most offering condolences before politely protesting that no new law would have stopped their children's killer, Adam Lanza. They also were neighbors, and they, too, left to applause.
The bipartisan legislative task force created in response to the shooting deaths of 20 first-graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14 filled the wide stage of Newtown High School.
"Our job is to listen," House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, told them at the outset.
The hearing was like none at the State Capitol in Hartford. It couldn't be, not in a town where a firehouse is newly decorated with 26 copper stars, one for each victim. It is a place where most anything can remind residents of what happened on Dec. 14.
They gathered in the high school that once represented the distant futures of 20 absent children, the place where the parents of Jesse Lewis, Dylan Hockley, Benjamin Wheeler and the others expected them to grow, learn and graduate with the Class of '24.
Parents of those three children spoke. So did Bill Sherlach, the husband of the school psychologist, Mary Sherlach, and Peter Paradis, the stepfather of a teacher's aide, Rachel D'Avino. They were two of the six women who died with the children they taught, counseled and tried to protect.
Susie Ehrens, the mother of a girl who ran past the killer with eight classmates from the classroom of Vicki Soto, a teacher killed apparently trying to shield students, struggled for composure.
"I know how lucky we are," Ehrens said. "The fact my daughter survived and others didn't haunts me."
Ehrens made no effort to hide a coiled anger. She told the officials that America gave up its claim to greatness when it preferred the slaughter of innocents to the risk of offending gun owners.
"We stopped being something to be proud of when we love our guns more than we love our children," Ehrens said. Her closing demand was delivered like a punch to the gut: "that every decision you make as if it's your child that didn't walk out that school that day."
Andres Nikitehyuk also struggled with what might have been. His son, a third-grader taking his turn as class helper, was in the hallway when gunfire erupted. A teacher yanked him inside her class, then locked the door.
"Here is what I want to say to each and every one of you: I used to be part of the silent majority," Nikitehyuk said. "It's been long overdue, but it's clear I have to speak up."