By Edith Honan
NEWTOWN, Connecticut (Reuters) - Parents and neighbors of the children killed in last month's Connecticut school shooting implored state lawmakers at a hearing on Wednesday to ban the powerful rifle and high-capacity magazines used in the massacre.
As parents, first responders and town officials spoke at the Newtown high school, many in the audience of about 600 people gave standing ovations and wept.
"We lost our son Benjamin" to an "unstable, suicidal individual who had access to a weapon that has no place in a home," said David Wheeler. "Military-style assault weapons belong in an armory under lock and key. They do not belong in a weapons safe in a home."
Legislators in Washington and around the United States are grappling with how to keep Americans safe from gun violence in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that killed 20 children and six adults.
Gun control advocates argue that the AR 15-type assault weapon and high-capacity magazines used by the gunman do not belong in the hands of civilians. Gun rights advocates say that any attempt to ban assault weapons or high-capacity magazines is a prelude to stripping Americans of their constitutional right to bear arms.
President Barack Obama has called on Congress to approve an overhaul of the nation's gun laws, including an expansion of background checks for gun sales. On Wednesday, former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords - who was shot in the head in a mass shooting two years ago in Tucson - urged her former colleagues to act.
Many of the proposals made by Connecticut lawmakers, including an assault weapons ban and expanding background checks, are similar to bills under consideration also in Washington.
But while previous hearings held in the state capitol of Hartford have featured strong disagreement, especially on gun control, most of those testifying in the hearing in Newtown shared the view that assault weapons do not belong in the hands of civilians.
"I cannot agree that weapons such as the Bushmaster can play a legitimate role in a society that first and foremost seeks to keep its citizens safe," said Newtown first selectman Pat Llodra, the town's top elected official.
But there were dissenting voices as well.
Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan died in the massacre, said she hoped the tragedy would help inspire changes in how society cares for the mentally ill.
She likened guns to high-speed cars: "In the hands of an expert, it is safe and possibly thrilling. In the hands of a person with mental imbalances, emotional immaturity or recklessness, it is a death machine."
Peter Paradis' stepdaughter, 29-year-old Rachel Davino, was one of six educators killed in the massacre. He said he supported logical solutions to gun violence, like more background checks, but he said he thought the shooting has been used to satisfy political agendas.
"If we had responsible gun ownership this wouldn't have happened," Paradis said. He said better education for gun owners, as well as stationing armed guards in schools, would make people safer.
"It's a right given to us, but it's also a privilege," he said.
(Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)