Not all of the more than 100 residents who attended U.S. Rep. John B. Larson’s forum Sunday on violence prevention agreed with his desire to reinstate a nationwide ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines. But most of them did.
The forum held at St. John’s Episcopal Church in West Hartford was Larson’s way of keeping the conversation about gun control and violence prevention going in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
But not everyone agreed with the solutions that Larson put on the table during a 20-minute speech.
“It is a Second Amendment right. I don’t think it’s your position to tell me what kind of weapon or how many rounds I need to protect my family, to target shoot, or to hunt,” one man told Larson. “Second I think you’re doing a disservice to all those families by grandstanding the fact that by passing this legislation it solves the problem.”
The man was interrupted by a mostly anti-gun audience.
Larson told the man he never suggested that the gun control legislation “solved the problem.”
“I said there’s no panacea,” Larson said. “But to be blind to the fact that assault weapons are used in these deaths — it is part of the problem.”
He said he respected the man’s right to come and voice his concerns about gun rights, even though he disagreed.
“I respect gun owners, but I don’t see the logic in assault weapons or multi-capacity. I guess they’re fun to shoot,” Larson said.
The man agreed that the guns were fun to shoot, but added that wasn’t why a gunman killed 20 children and six adults before taking his own life.
“The root cause of why he did this had nothing to do with assault weapons,” the man said. “He would have found another way.”
The man was booed by the crowd.
Many suggested mental illness also contributed to what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School, even though it’s still unclear if the gunman suffered from any specific type of mental disease.
More than a handful of residents called for more resources to be directed at the state’s fractured health care system.
One woman, who said she’s a member of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, was concerned that the last time state officials looked at the mental health system they failed to understand the issues properly and did more harm than good.
Larson assured her the task force chaired by U.S. Rep. Michael Thompson of California would be talking to experts in the mental health arena. The task force Thompson will chair was created by the Congressional Democratic Caucus and is in addition to the one created by President Barack Obama..
“Mental health is an enormous issue and it’s a problem that needs to be dealt with specifically,” Larson said.
But after several minutes of discussion about mental health, one woman opined the group needs to focus its legislative efforts on gun control because it’s a conversation the National Rifle Association doesn’t want to have.
“Let’s please concentrate on the guns,” she said. “We’re the country with the guns and that’s what we need to put our focus on while not neglecting the other issues.” The comment received applause.
Wayne LaPierre, executive director of the NRA, said in his first interview Sunday on “Meet the Press” that the national assault weapon ban didn’t stop the 1999 Columbine High School shooting and won’t stop future shootings.
“I think that’s a phony piece of legislation,” LaPierre said, adding that he doesn’t think it will pass. LaPierre also called for a national registry of those suffering from mental illness.
On Friday, LaPierre held a press conference during which he called for armed security guards in all schools in response to the shooting in Newtown. On Friday and Sunday, LaPierre also suggested that the U.S. Attorney’s office step up and start prosecuting more gun crimes.
The sentiment was echoed Sunday afternoon by Ed Peruta, director of a gun-rights organization called Connecticut Carry.
“I challenge anybody to start looking at the firearm violations,” Peruta told Larson. “They walk in the door and 18 months later they’re walking out with a deal. They’re doing no time.”
He suggested transferring all firearm cases from the state to the federal government, which he also suggested should pay for all of the prosecutions.
Peruta also dismissed Sen. Beth Bye’s proposal, which would add a 50 percent sales tax on ammunition not sold at a firing range.
“That’s a revenue stream. That’s not a preventive measure,” Peruta said. “Criminals are gonna get their bullets.”
Joseph Visconti, who has a permit to carry, tried to strike a middle ground.
He said he supports a ban on high capacity magazines, but isn’t going to turn in his pistol anytime soon. He said he has the gun for protection, but is not a member of the NRA. And, as a gun owner, he supports background checks.
Currently, there are loopholes in federal law that allow 40 percent of gun owners nationally to avoid background checks, Larson said. But he also acknowledged that requiring universal background checks for people purchasing guns and ammunition and an assault weapon ban won’t be enough. He said looking at mental health and youth violence prevention also are necessary steps.
“The ban on assault rifles should never had been allowed to expired,” he told a crowd of about 120 Sunday.
Larson said he hasn’t spoken to a hunter or sportsman who sees a need to use an assault rifle or high-capacity magazines.
He said he believes tougher gun controls will receive support from Republicans because “this is not about coming to take people’s guns away, this is about the protection of children and the stopping of unnecessary violence.”
Earlier Sunday the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence released a statement from a parent of an 8 year old Sandy Hook student who escaped the gunman.
“Our hearts are heavy this holiday in Newtown. Nothing will bring our children back or ease the pain we all feel,” Andrei Nikitchyuk, a parent whose son was saved by a courageous teacher, said. “But we can do something to make this nation safer. We can make this the nation we all want. So today I want to speak specifically to all responsible gun owners and NRA members with the message to join us. Join us because you know in your heart that we are better than this.”
Nikitchyuk is calling for all Americans to join him in signing a letter by the “We Are Better Than This” campaign.