Washington - School superintendent Janet Robinson knew something was terribly wrong when she “did not have enough children” for the parents gathered in Newtown, Connecticut, desperate for a glimpse of their sons and daughters.
Testifying on Wednesday before a rapt special hearing for House Democrats, Robinson spoke of the communal heartbreak of losing 20 innocent Sandy Hook Elementary School first graders and six teachers to an assault by a gunman.
As frantic parents arrived at a staging area on that December morning, “it was then that I was beginning to realise the magnitude of this horror”, she said.
“This loving little elementary school was helpless in the face of this assault.”
On the day President Barack Obama unveiled ambitious measures to tackle gun violence, Robinson gave lawmakers an unflinching look at the massacre that shocked the country. She pleaded for tough laws, including an assault weapons ban, that could prevent another tragedy.
Robinson was joined by police chief Scott Knight of Chaska, Minnesota, who insisted it was vital to toughen gun laws to prevent people from using the firepower which he said “facilitates mass murder”.
House members like Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut hugged activists and victims before the hearing - a Democrats-only meeting not subject to House rules of order.
The room hushed when the mother of Gabe Zimmerman, congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords's staffer who was killed in a 2011 Tucson shooting that injured Giffords and left five others dead, made her plea.
“When you are disheartened by the number of steps that have to be taken, by the fears of gun advocates, by the politics, please dig deep and find new heart,” Zimmerman's mother Emily Nottingham said. “We need you to not give up.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and others wiped away tears and gave Nottingham and Robinson a standing ovation.
“I don't recall ever seeing anything like that before,” congressman Keith Ellison said afterward. “It was that moving.”
The testimony struck a chord with many of the lawmakers, in large part because a few of their own who had been marred by tragedy were in the room.
Giffords aide Ron Barber was shot along with her and Zimmerman in Tucson. Giffords resigned to work on her rehabilitation, while Barber won her seat last November.
“I will never ever forget the image of Gabe dying by my side,” Barber said.
Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy's husband was shot and killed on a New York commuter train in 1993. The attack prompted her to run for Congress to fight for stricter gun control.
“There is never closure for victims. It never goes away,” she said.
McCarthy said Obama's ambitious plan, including a push for reinstatement of the assault weapons ban and universal background checks for gun buyers, signaled a potential turning point, even with the difficulties of getting such laws through the Republican-held House.
The new proposals mark “the first time in a long, long time… that I actually have real hope that we can get something done to save lives.”
But she is also a realist, and marks the tragedies that continue to come from the barrel of a gun.
Since Newtown, “900 people have died from gun violence” in America, McCarthy said. “I keep count.” - Sapa-AFP