LITTLE ROCK — Dec. 14 was the worst day of Neil Heslin’s life.
Heslin is the father of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis, one of 20 children who were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on that date, along with six adults. Heslin visited Little Rock on Thursday as part of a 25-state, 100-day bus tour organized by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pro-gun control group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Heslin said that since the day of the Newtown massacre, 6,000 other Americans have lost their lives to gun violence, or more than 30 per day. He and other speakers called on U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., to drop his opposition to legislation that would expand background checks for gun buyers.
"It’s shocking how many unnecessary deaths a year (occur) due to unnecessary gun violence," Heslin said, his voice leaden with grief. "Any effort that we can put that’ll make a change and save just one life is worth every bit of the effort. I don’t ever want to see a parent have to go through what I’ve gone through and I’m dealing with every day."
Other speakers in the pavilion in Little Rock’s River Market district included Carlee Soto, sister of slain Newtown teacher Victoria Soto.
"You can’t begin to imagine the pain my family and the other 25 families are going through. My sister was gunned down in her first grade classroom. My sister wasn’t prepared to stand in front of a gunman protecting her kids," Soto said, frequently pausing to collect herself.
But Soto said that because of her sister, 11 students survived. Victoria Soto hid her students in a closet and told the gunman that the children were in the auditorium, and when some of the students left their hiding place she thew herself in front of them as gunman Adam Lanza began firing.
"More and more people are dying from gun violence. Change needs to be made," Carlee Soto said.
The Rev. Elliot Blocker, whose daughter was recently shot and killed in North Little Rock, said that "safety, right to life and peace in our communities are three of the most basic values we can strive to achieve in our society, (but) we are failing to provide these securities by allowing easy access to deadly weapons. With this being the case, people of all faiths and creeds demand that their elected leaders listen to the will of the people and pass sensible gun violence prevention legislation."
After the speakers finished, members of the traveling group read the names of victims of gun violence. The Thursday morning event was held on the hottest day of the year so far in Arkansas, with temperatures reaching triple digits in the afternoon.
Pryor voted against a proposal by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., to expand background checks, saying it did not adequately address mental health issues and would not save lives. He voted for an alternative proposal, backed by the National Rifle Association, that would have tightened the background check database but not expand the types of sales subject to it.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns has been targeting Pryor for weeks in public appearances, news releases and a television ad on Arkansas airwaves. Pryor responded last month with a television ad in which he said, "No one from New York or Washington tells me what to do. I listen to Arkansas."