By Gary Stoller, USA TODAY
NEWTOWN, Conn. - The parents of youngsters killed in last month's shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School said during a state hearing here Wednesday night that society must learn from the Dec. 14 massacre in which more than 20 people, mostly children, died.
Parent David Wheeler said his son, Ben, was lost "to an unstable, suicidal individual who had access to a weapon that has no place in a home."
Wheeler was referring to gunman Adam Lanza, who took his own life after the massacre. Wheeler told the members of the Connecticut Legislature presiding over the packed hearing at Newtown High School that access to weapons is where they must focus their efforts.
"Military-style assault weapons belong in an armory under lock and key, not in a weapons safe at home," Wheeler said.
He also pressed for a better way to identify people in mental distress "that leaves their dignity and self-respect intact."
Parent Nicole Hockley said she will remember forever the wailing of her son, Jake, when he was told that his brother, Dylan, had died. Hockley said a gun like the one used in the shootings might be safe with an expert, but, "in the hands of someone with a mental imbalance, it's a death machine."
Parent Scarlet Lewis, whose 6-year-old son Jesse was killed in the massacre, told the hearing that she thinks about "kissing Jesse's sleeping cheek all the time."
She said the world must learn from the way it united over the tragedy. "We need to hold onto that feeling of oneness," she said. "Let's turn this tragedy into the event that turned the tide."
The hearing is the final one of the Connecticut legislature's task force on gun violence prevention and children's safety. It is the first one one in Newtown - a community still reeling as it tries to recover from the events of Dec. 14, when Lanza killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, in their Newtown home and 26 children and adults at the elementary school.
It also comes as Congress, prodded by the tragedy, debates gun-control measures.
Earlier in the evening, the event's first speaker, Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra, called for a ban on assault weapons and high capacity munition clips, prompting a standing ovation.
Llodra, a Republican who is the town's chief executive, said weapons like the Bushmaster rifle used by gunman Adam Lanza in the fatal shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School should not be in the hands of public citizens.
Llodra said she wonders "how we as a society have become so desensitized to violence," and called for improved access to good mental health care and safer schools.
The full Connecticut Legislature is attending this hearing, unlike three previous hearings over which smaller legislative groups presided.
The tragedy led to the creation of the state legislature's task force, which held three previous hearings in Hartford. The first hearing on Jan. 25 focused on school safety, the second hearing on Monday was about guns and yesterday's hearing was on mental health.
Wednesday's hearing was scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. and end at midnight. The first five hours of the hearing are reserved for testimony from local officials, first responders and families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School system, according to the task force.
"It's an opportunity for the residents of Newtown to bring their experiences and perspectives on a way forward directly to members of the task force," said Adam Joseph, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats, who control a majority of the state senate.
If time remains after Newtown officials and residents speak, the hearing will be opened to the public. Speakers will be limited to three minutes of testimony.
Contributing: Melanie Eversley