Hugh McQuaid photo
Nicole Hockley (Hugh McQuaid photo)

As she introduced President Barack Obama on Monday at the University of Hartford, Nicole Hockley shared a glimpse of the grief she’s experienced since her son, Dylan, was among those killed Dec. 14 in Newtown.

Hockley said that before her son was gunned down with 19 other first graders and 6 educators, she would see violence on the evening news and it would impact her — for a moment. But it wasn’t long before she went back to her routine.

“Now there is no going back,” she told the crowd of 3,100. “For me there is no turning away. If you want to protect your children, if you want to avoid this loss, you will not turn away either. Do something before our tragedy becomes your tragedy.”

Paralyzed after the death of her 6-year-old son, Hockley said she was inspired to lobby the Connecticut legislature on his behalf. But it took her months to summon the courage to get involved in the conversation on gun control.

“We approached the Connecticut legislature with love and logic and they listened,” Hockley said. “They responded with respect and the strongest gun responsibility legislation in the nation.”

She said her expectations for Congress are high and that with the same approach of “love and logic,” they will prevail.

President Obama has high hopes as well. He’s bringing Hockley and 10 other families back to Washington with him to lobby for stricter gun control laws, but he admitted it won’t be easy.

Hugh McQuaid photo
President Barack Obama (Hugh McQuaid photo)

In a 28-minute address Monday before thousands at the University of Hartford, Obama said he doesn’t understand how something like universal background checks — which has the support of 90 percent of the American public — may not get a vote in Congress.

“How often do 90 percent of Americans agree on anything?” Obama said.

“You would think with those numbers Congress would rush to make this happen,” he said. “You’d think that this would not be a heavy lift and yet some folks back in Washington are already floating the idea that they may use political stunts to prevent votes on any of those reforms.”

He said they’re not just saying they’ll vote against the bill, they’re saying they won’t even allow a vote.

“That’s like saying your opinion doesn’t matter,” Obama told the crowd.

The crowd started chanting: “We want a vote. We want a vote.”

Obama waited until they quieted to transition back to the beltway.

“I’ve also heard some in the Washington press suggest that what happens to gun violence legislation in Congress this week will either be political victory or defeat for me. Connecticut, this is not about me. This is not about politics. This is about doing the right thing for all the families that are here that have been torn apart by gun violence,” Obama said over a cheering crowd.

He insisted this was not about politics.

Convinced that America is not as divided as some may suggest, Obama said cable news and the Internet may have people thinking everyone just hates each other and everyone’s “at each others throats’.”

“But that’s not how most Americans think about these issues,” Obama said. “There are good people on both sides of every issue.”

He said Connecticut was able to pass bipartisan legislation because they listened to one another. He hopes that Congress can do the same.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who signed gun control legislation last week, used his time at the podium as more of a victory lap. He said the laws Connecticut passed, including universal background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, should give supporters confidence “that you can stand up to people who raise their voice louder than yours. That you can stand up when you have what’s right on your side.”

Newtown has been called a tipping point in the gun control debate and U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy have said they hope passage of Connecticut’s legislation becomes the turning point in the national debate.

Blumenthal said he has been lobbying his colleagues to get gun control legislation to the Senate floor for a vote. But he expected testimony this week from the families of the Sandy Hook victims to be more persuasive than that of any politician. 

“The president’s being here is a powerful and important message, but at the end of the day these families in their grief and healing have a firsthand experience that virtually no one can match and a testimony that is incomparable in its power,” he said.

An estimated 3,100 students, faculty, and invited guests packed the University of Hartford Sports Center as they awaited Obama’s arrival Monday, including many of those who helped get Connecticut’s laws passed.

Ron Pinciaro, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, said the president’s visit affirmed that Connecticut was on the right track when it passed sweeping gun control legislation.

“It sends a strong signal that we did the job that the rest of the country was expecting us to do,” he said.

Hugh McQuaid photo
Ron Pinciaro, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence (Hugh McQuaid photo)

Although Pinciaro was pleased with the steps the state had taken to curb gun violence, he said it would be tougher to accomplish on the federal level. He said he was disappointed that some gun control proposals seem to have fallen off the table in the national debate.

“The makeup of Congress at this point is very, very difficult for our point of view,” he said.

Pinciaro said he expected Obama to reinforce the need for outspoken popular support to overcome political resistance in Washington.

Meg Staunton and Nancy Lefkowitz, two Fairfield mothers who founded March for Change, said they felt as if Connecticut could serve as a template for other states. But they also said it would need to start as a grassroots effort.

Staunton and Lefkowitz said they were hoping the president’s acknowledgement of Connecticut’s gun legislation would encourage other states to pass similar measures.

Lefkowitz said she hoped other people would be inspired by Obama “saying publicly he’s proud of these lawmakers . . . proud of what they’ve done.”

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Craig Bentley (Hugh McQuaid photo)

Craig Bentley, a senior at the University of Hartford, said he felt Connecticut had taken the wrong steps in response to the Newtown tragedy. With a Gadsden “Don’t tread on me” flag draped over his shoulders, Bentley told reporters Connecticut lawmakers should have focused more on school safety than gun control.

Though he said most gun owners supported measures like universal background checks, he said some aspects of the state’s new law were unconstitutional. Bentley acknowledged his view was a minority view on campus and in the gymnasium where the president would soon be speaking.

As he was speaking with reporters before the event began, another student walked by and told Bentley to “show some respect.”