Updated April 11, 2013 at 11:10 p.m.
By Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer
HARTFORD — For many, President Barack Obama’s visit here on Monday may not have been spurred by shootings in Hartford, but it was a symbolic gesture that will have to suffice.
At 4:26 p.m. on Monday, Air Force One landed at Bradley Airport and by 5:42 p.m. Obama stepped on stage in the Sports Center at the University of Hartford. The audience welcomed him with thunderous applause, punctuated by a shout from one woman: “We love you Obama!”
Obama responded with his signature line: “I love you back!” then delivered a speech that consoled those still mourning lost ones in the Dec. 14 shooting rampage by Adam Lanza. The 20-year old man killed 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown after he killed his mother and then committed suicide before state police arrived.
“Team Newtown” and the president’s visit in Hartford are part of a larger, coordinated effort to continue the momentum for stricter gun control laws that address assault weapons. Additionally, Gov. Dannel Malloy on April 4 signed a bill and which addresses a ban on new high-capacity magazines. This is a victory that would indirectly impact urban violence, according to state officials.
Connecticut has paved the way with what state officials called “the toughest gun law in the nation.” Since then other states such as Colorado, New York and Maryland, have passed stricter gun control laws. And many state officials are hoping for the “Connecticut effect” to produce a compromised bill in Congress.
The president warned gun control advocates about the impending fight in Congress to pass legislation that ban lethal assault weapons.
“Newtown, we want you to know that we’re here with you. We will not walk away from the promises we’ve made,” Obama said. “As soon as this week, Congress will begin debating commonsense proposals to reduce gun violence. But Congress is only going to act on them if they hear from you—the American people.”
Obama spoke to an enthusiastic and diverse audience comprised of students, staff, faculty and invited guests. Many faces that reflected hope—a bridge from the outer darkness of tragedy to the possibility of closure for many victims of gun violence.
At least that’s what Sen. Chris Murphy is hoping as he and the several family members from the Newtown tragedy canvass Congress this week to urge “common sense” legislation.
“The president’s arrival here signals that he hasn’t forgotten about us here in Connecticut,” Murphy said. “We want something that will move the ball substantially in terms of getting universal background checks and getting assault weapons off the streets.”
But the cry from many was that the provisions in the bill, produced by the general assembly last week, don’t address gun violence in urban areas.
Many handguns used in urban areas are illegal, said Hartford Rep. Edwin Vargas, referring to the provision that provides background checks. “Background checks don’t cover those illegal guns.”
Although Vargas and other city residents welcome gun reform, the compromised bill coupled with Obama’s visit is only the first step in this complicated issue, said Damris Bolorin, a Hartford parent and organizer with Hartford Areas Rally Together.
“I am happy that legislation was passed in Connecticut,” Bolorin said. “However, it is not enough.”
Other community organizers and urban residents echoed that sentiment.
“I have a great appreciation of the families in Sandy Hook and my heart goes out to them. However, there has not being a balance in the form of legislation and support for urban infrastructures such as Hartford,” said Hartford resident Andrew Woods. “More needs to be done on the legislative end to reduce and penalize those who traffic guns to our kids. Legislation around machine guns and assault rifles are not applicable to the average shooting in urban or suburban towns.”
Social Worker and Canton resident Amy Hilyard, 43, agreed.
“Some form of control is needed in terms of who gets the gun and even more importantly who will protect our children. We need to be more proactive rather than reactive,” Hilyard said. “If someone wants to get a gun, they are going to get a gun. Education and equal opportunity is key to the root of gun violence in cities. Without opportunity, kids sometimes take to the streets.”
Asked how that particular provision would advance changes with shootings in urban areas, Murphy said: “Universal background check would apply to any gun sold, whether it be a rifle or a handgun. In terms of daily shootings, universal background checks in this provision is perhaps the most important for handguns. We hope this bill will address crimes that happen in the streets of Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport as well as addressing mass shootings in any area.”
The Obama administration’s use of symbolism was evident in the president’s second visit to Connecticut since the Newtown school shooting in December. The tragedy happened in a mostly white and upper-class neighborhood.
Jimmy Greene and Nelba Marquez-Greene have strong ties to Hartford, a diverse city where about a third of its residents are below the poverty line. Both attended the University of Hartford’s HARTT School of Music. Nelba was born in Hartford. In addition, Rachel D’Avino D’Avino received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Hartford and was completing her Ph.D. at the University of St. Joseph’s Institute for Autism and Behavioral Studies.
“Every family in this state was shaken by the tragedy of that morning,” Obama said. “Every family in this country was shaken. We hugged our kids more tightly. We asked what could we do, as a society, to help prevent a tragedy like that from happening again. And as a society, we decided that we have to change. We must. We must change.”
Obama also spoke about a grieving mother his wife Michelle met recently. The mother lives in a suburb of his hometown of Chicago. And her son was shot while on his way to school.
The mother, he said, told him that she hated it when people lay the blame on zip codes rather than other kinds of codes. Her son “was exactly where he was supposed to be. He was in the right place at the right time, and he still got shot.”
Obama addressed urban violence by simply using references to the Greene family and to Chicago.
But it wasn’t enough for some.
“I am happy that out of such tragedy [in Newtown] much awareness has being brought to gun violence,” Bolorin said. “What needs to happen from here on is prevention, going out into the community and creating more awareness, the need to level severe punishment to those who commit crimes with weapons.”
Last Monday, White House officials contacted John Carson, Vice President of University relations at the University of Hartford, about whether they could use the facility for the president’s visit.
The next day, workers began preparing the campus for the president’s visit. Carson contacted the Office of Students’ Affair and requested a list of 50 of the most active students on campus. White House Officials briefed the staff and students, and they began preparing the area for the historic day on campus.
“We’re thrilled that the president selected the University of Hartford,” said President of the University of Hartford Walter Harrison. “This is indeed an occasion we were happy to host.”
Other hosts on hand to welcome the president included Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Rep. Elizabeth Etsy, Rep. Jim Himes, Rep. Joe Courtney, Scott Slifka, Mayor of West Hartford and Pedro Segarra, Mayor of Hartford, who were all at Bradley Airport when Air Force One landed at 4:26 p.m. and before his motorcade left the airport at 4: 43 p.m.
Congressman John Larson, Sen. Christopher Murphy and Rosa DeLauro traveled on Air Force One with the president.
University of Hartford security officials said that about 3,500 people showed up for Obama’s visit to the campus. Officials could not accommodate everyone, and many were turned away.
Some were disappointed because they did not have access.
“One thing I do wish for is that the event was open to the public’s verses being a closed event, Bolorin said. “The weather was great. This would have been the perfect opportunity for the president to speak to what is being done about prevention. This needs to be an ongoing process that extends beyond the legislation process.”
Additional reporting by Andrea Mesquita. Photos courtesy of Sms Patch, The White House.