Thousands of Connecticut residents marched to the state Capitol on Thursday to demand that lawmakers strengthen the state’s gun laws in response to the school shooting that claimed the lives of 20 children and six educators.

Chanting phrases like “Now, now, now” and “Pass the Law,” a crowd estimated at 5,500 by Capitol Police told lawmakers like Sen. Republican Leader John McKinney, who represents Newtown, that they want action.

McKinney’s remarks to the crowd were interrupted by chants of “pass the law.” McKinney was at the Newtown firehouse on Dec. 14 as 26 families were informed that their loved ones were murdered. On Thursday he spoke about how that day changed him forever.

“Beyond any laws that we may pass, each one of us can make a difference in making our society better,” McKinney said before he was interrupted by chants of “pass the law.”

The chants continued for several seconds and reminded lawmakers who attended just how controversial gun control issues remain in a state with some of the strongest gun laws in the nation. 

Christine Stuart photo
Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney addresses the crowd (Christine Stuart photo)

McKinney paused and let the crowd get the chanting out of its system before proceeding, but he was stopped again.

“Let me change what I was going to say,” McKinney said. “In Washington, D.C., Republicans and Democrats won’t even sit down and talk with one another.” The crowd booed. “Here’s what’s okay and acceptable about our democracy: having different opinions is okay and healthy for our democracy. Here’s what’s not acceptable: allowing those differences to be a barrier to making progress.”

McKinney said that in Connecticut, Republicans and Democrats work together.

“I stand by my record of 14 years. I am proud of the record I have — voting for an assault weapons ban, which we’ve done in Connecticut on a bipartisan basis,” McKinney told the crowd.

Later, after stepping away from the podium, McKinney said shouting at people is not going to help resolve the issue on either side. He said there’s too much of that on both sides of the debate and it has to stop.

He also said there appears to be confusion about how politics work in Connecticut versus Washington. He said that when President Barack Obama stood up and said “they deserve a vote,” that’s just not an issue in Connecticut.

“In Connecticut, we’ve never denied a vote on any of these issues,” McKinney said.

The three bipartisan subcommittees on gun control, school security, and mental health will be making their recommendations to legislative leaders Friday. Leaders from all four caucuses will then be responsible for reaching consensus on those recommendations and writing a bill that encompasses what they can agree upon.

McKinney wasn’t the only Republican lawmaker to attend the rally, but he was not joined by House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero. Cafero’s spokesman said he didn’t want his attendance at the rally to be misconstrued as support for the group’s agenda at a time when the subcommittee is still debating the issues.

The two women who organized the rally, Nancy Lefkowitz and Meg Staunton, have teamed up with Connecticut Against Gun Violence (CAGV) and embraced the group’s agenda.

CAGV’s agenda is the “the most ambitious” in the state’s history, according to Ron Pinciaro, CAGV’s executive director. It calls for a stronger assault weapons ban, universal background checks for all gun purchases, annual renewal of handgun permits, and increasing the liability for gun owners who fail to properly store their firearms.

It’s an agenda supported by Veronique Pozner, whose son, Noah, was among those killed on Dec. 14.

Pozner said Dec. 14 was the tipping point.

“How could anyone think that my son’s life or any of those whose lives were stolen that day were so disposable that it is acceptable to do nothing?” Pozner said.

It was Pozner who asked Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to view her 6-year-old son’s bullet-riddled body before he was buried.

Speaking about gun control legislation on Thursday, Malloy said “clearly the time has come.”

“What’s going to happen in this nation is that Newtown has forever changed it,” he said. “The NRA cannot confuse people into believing that all gun sales should not be subject to background checks.”

Malloy called for action at both the state and national level.

“Every day that we delay making common sense changes on a national basis is a day in which more innocent individuals will die because we failed to act,” Malloy said.

He also encouraged the crowd not to forget what happened in Newtown.

“We have to use it as our justification for making the kind of change that we all desire seeing,” Malloy said. “We will not rest until we have changed Connecticut.”

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, a former lawmaker, said she’s hearing that lawmakers are receiving email “100 to 1 against” changing the state’s gun laws.

“Today, we are here to be the new not-so-quite majority,” Merrill told the crowd.

Attorney General George Jepsen, who was in the Senate when Connecticut passed the assault weapons ban in 1993, said it cleared each committee and each chamber by a single vote.

“The other side is very well-organized. They work hard. They are not interested in an honest dialogue and they will fight tooth-and-nail,” Jepsen said.

But it’s more than just legislation.

“We need to do more than pass good laws. We need to change social attitudes. We need to change a culture that tolerates gun violence,” Jepsen said.