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Sandy Hook victims' parents testify at Capitol: 'Our children have the right to life'

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AMMUNITION_BAN_ILLINOIS_39240777.JPGNicole Hockley, a parent who lost her child, Dylan Hockley, 6, in the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, testifies for legislation to ban the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines during a Senate Executive Committee hearing Monday in Springfield. Fellow Sandy Hook parent Mark Barden, whose son Daniel died in the school shooting, is in the background. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

SPRINGFIELD-Three parents - Mark Barden, Nicole Hockley and Francine Wheeler - of children slain in the Sandy Hook massacre on December 14, 2012 testified Monday at the Capitol supporting legislation to ban the sale and purchase of large-capacity magazine clips holding more than 10 rounds. The measure passed the Senate Executive Committee by a 12-3 vote, with two Republicans supporting it.

The three parents are part of a group called Sandy Hook Promise, whose members pledge to honor the 26 students and educators who were shot down and support common-sense solutions to prevent violence. Invited to Springfield by Gov. Pat Quinn, the three parents from Newtown, Conn. met with 22 state senators and took questions from reporters Monday afternoon. The following is a transcript of the interview.

Hockley's opening remarks:

"Thank you for this opportunity to talk and just as way of introduction, we are here along with Sandy Hook Promise to discuss and support Senate Bill 1002. As part of Sandy Hook Promise, I think it's important that you know we're not just a gun-control group. We're not gun lobbyists. Sandy Hook Promise actually looks at holistic solutions and common-sense solutions for all the causes of gun-violence. So, we look very closely at school security and school safety, how we strengthen and build communities, support parenting - good parenting, and also mental health legislation.

"And in fact, one of the other parents and members of Sandy Hook Promise was in Hartford today proposing a new mental health bill for Connecticut that she helped co-author. So I just - I kind of want to position that we are not a gun-control group. We are a common-sense solutions group. But here today, in Illinois, the topic of the day and the topic that we're discussing is Senate Bill 1002 to limit the purchase and sale of high-capacity magazines that have more than 10 bullets.

"It's something that's near and dear to our hearts because in Newtown the shooter that killed our children used 30-round high-capacity magazine clips. And in one of the opportunities where he had to reload, 11 children were able to escape from a classroom. And we're left asking ourselves if he had had to reload more times, would more children have been able to escape or would one of the adults have been able to disarm him. It's a measure that will absolutely save lives.

"And Newtown is an incredibly beautiful, idyllic little place. And if this sort of tragedy can happen there, it can happen anywhere. And we don't want it to happen in Illinois to force you to take action. So that's why we support this bill, in the hopes that we can prevent any of you that have children or loved ones from feeling the same pain that we do every day."

Q: You heard the opponents as well as the proponents talk about how this is really a mental-health issue. What are your thoughts on what they consider very serious arguments on the other side?

Wheeler: "I don't know why that's an argument, per se, because as Nicole just said, it's a holistic approach. So, I think what I would say to that senator or those senators is that I really agree with you that mental health is a humongous problem. And I for one am going to help try and support the mental health changes that we need in this country as well as limiting high-capacity magazines."

Hockley: "For us, it's not a 'you have to have one or the other.' We're very much about having conversations with 'and' in them. So, it's mental health and school safety and stronger communities and responsible parenting and gun safety. It's those things together. And every step taken is a step taken in the right direction. Today we're talking about guns here. Today in Connecticut we're talking about mental health. It's not a choice between you have to do one thing or the other. These are all things that need to work together. Just some of them come at different times."

Q: A lot of advocates say we should have just as much ammunition as the government to protect ourselves because that's what the Second Amendment says. What are your thoughts on that kind of thing?

Barden: "If that's the case, then we should be armed by the government. Then, where's my M-16? I mean, really, how do you respond to that?"

Wheeler: "Well, you know, we're parents. We're parents. That's who we are, and when the majority of the country write us letters and say how supportive they are and that they reach out to us, the majority of people are wanting to do what's the right thing. What's it worth to you? So, sometimes we can't answer that. We can't answer to that, but we can say, you know, this is how we feel because as parents we're taking responsibility for our children. We're trying to keep them safe."

Hockley: "In addition to that, the bills that we support - including this one in Illinois - they're not taking anything away from anyone. We're not talking about assault weapons bans. We're not talking about confiscation. We don't support those measures. So, people that want to maintain their firearms for whatever reason - hunters, sportsmen or self-defense - they have that right. But with rights come responsibilities, and a limit on high-capacity magazines is one of those responsibilities."

Wheeler: "And our children have the right to life."

Q: Illinois is under a court order to pass a concealed-carry law by June 9. Do you have any stance on that?

Barden: "We're here to discuss Senate Bill 1002. We don't come here with pure emotion and say, 'Oh, you have to make changes.' We do our research. We read up on the issue. We read what the bills do and what they don't do. We try to learn what the various legislation, what the pushback is on it so we can have a reasonable debate and a sensible conversation. So we're not there yet with that particular piece of legislation."

Q: Is Illinois one of many places you've visited?

Hockley: "We've supported different states in different ways in terms of being physically present. Obviously Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, Illinois - I start to lose track. But we've also supported many other states through op-eds and letters-to-the-editor and phone calls and activities in that way, and we have several other outstanding invitations from states. But for us, it's about where can we help the most. Where can we have the biggest impact? Where are the bills being proposed that are the ones that we support and believe will genuinely save lives? And we go where we feel that we can make a difference."

Q: You said you are not a lobbyist group, but are there other groups you are working with?

Hockley: "Some of the states that we've visited have local grassroots organizations within them and we will work with them."

Q: Francine, you didn't testify during committee but became overwhelmed with emotion. If you had testified, what do you think you would have said?

Wheeler: "I'm not sure of the moment you're talking about, but I would say that when you go through something as tragic as this, your feelings change constantly. So, sometimes I was feeling sad that I didn't have gigantic picture of Ben right there. But sometimes I was, um - I was wanting the opportunity to speak, you know, and say - what would I say? I don't know what I would say. But I would probably just say that we have to find a solution, and you know what? It's many solutions. And I would say we're here because we need to find answers, not to fight. I don't want to fight. I want to find solutions. That's why I came. For my two kids. That's why I came."

Q: What difference do you think that would make, for them to see that face?

Wheeler: "I don't' - it was just something I was saying. Well, when I show people pictures of Ben - he was a real person, just as Dylan and Daniel were real boys. And when we meet people one-on-one - we met 22 senators today - we gave them all pictures of our children to say, 'You know what, they died. And we want to honor them by finding some solutions.'"

Q: Do you think you've changed any minds by being here today?

Hockley: "Um, I think we had some good conversations today. Some very open conversations. We don't come in and thump the table and say you have to do this. We're not those sort of people. We don't make demands. You know, the senators asked us our story, and then we asked them what their constituents say, what concerns do you have or what do you like, what don't you like. And it's just about open conversations. So different objections - and some of the objections were purely that senators hadn't had a chance to read the details of the bill yet. So, were manufacturers impacted or not? Well, no, they're not. So, OK, let's have that dialogue and discuss that part of the amendment. But it's been very civil and respectful, and we felt very welcomed here today."

Q: Did you pick who you wanted to see at random, or how would you characterize the group?

Hockley: "They came to us. We were sitting in a conference room, and they knew we were here and they wanted to speak with us. They were very wanting to speak with us. We didn't necessarily seek them out and they were all respectful and listened."

Q: People from both parties?

Hockley: "Yes. And we have to thank them for that."

Q: Is the pace of change, nationally and at the state level, frustrating? And do you think there will be change from where we are today?

Hockley: "There will absolutely be change, and the pace of change - personally, I'm not the most patient person in the world. I'd like all this solved today, or before 12/14 would have been nice. But we say repeatedly that this is a marathon and not a sprint. And any sort of large-scale change takes time, and we appreciate that. You consider civil rights movements, or women's voting rights movements, or gay marriage or even cultural changes like mothers against drunk driving and seatbelt laws. These things take time. And we're OK with that because if we're taking actions now that will save lives, that's better than waiting six months or a year or three years to then start taking actions because how many lives will have been lost in that period? So, we keep focused on the end state, the end goal. And we will take those incremental steps along the way and we're grateful for every step forward that's made."

Q: This is an issue that seems like the effectiveness will come later, long-term. Is that the standpoint you come from?

Hockley: "Yeah, I mean if we didn't - magazines can last 20 years. So let's look at how many lives can be saved rather than, 'Okay, let's wait a year and then it's another 20 years or wait five years and then it's another 20 years.' You have to look at the long-term view of this."

Q: Does it frustrate you that we've gotten to this point, that it had to happen to your children before action was taken?

Barden: "I don't think we can look at it in that perspective. I think we have to look ahead. Like Nicole said, we have to think of those people 20 years from now that will benefit from the changes that we are making today."

Q: What can any of you say what that long-term change should be? Where should restrictions settle, or can you address that at this time?

Wheeler: "Well, I think that because of our holistic approach, it has to be a simple answer for now because it would take many hours to answer that question specifically. But if you can look at this as a more loving and safe place to live in this country - for our generation, for future generations, for our educators, for our leaders, for everyone who lives here - I'll do what I can to make that change. Specifically, we'd need more time."

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