TWIN sisters from Scotland who teach music to children in the devastated community of Newtown have said the death of 20 youngsters must not be in vain and that “some good” has to emerge from one of the worst mass shootings in US history.
Helen Malyszka and Trish Keil, 58, from Edinburgh, told The Scotsman how they drove past the school just half an hour after Adam Lanza opened fire on pupils and teachers. They assumed the emergency vehicles outside were attending a car crash.
It was only later that they learned the nature and scope of the tragedy, with some of the dead including youngsters who had been at their music lessons.
Struggling to comprehend the massacre, like so many people in Newtown, the twins said it would be remembered on a par with 11 September, 2001, in the once idyllic town. But they expressed hope that ultimately “good will overcome evil”.
The grieving families tried to eulogise lives that had only begun with the first two funerals for the young victims of Lanza, who also killed six adults during his shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School, took place yesterday.
As hundreds of officers continued to piece together the events of last Friday, while maintaining a vigilant presence at other schools in the region, the debate surrounding gun control intensified in the wake of President Barack Obama’s soul-searching address before devastated families in the town.
The twins teach the children’s choir at the St Rose of Lima Catholic church in Sandy Hook, which has become a sanctuary for ordinary Connecticut people left devastated by the killings, and hold music classes at several pre-school and nursery establishments in the area.
Describing the impact of the killings, Ms Malyszka, known as Nell, said: “We’ll always remember 14 December … 9/11, it’s that kind of thing for this small town.
“But we will overcome, because good does overcome evil. It does. There’s more good – there has to be.”
She told The Scotsman she had been on her way to a vet appointment when she saw the emergency vehicles outside Sandy Hook. Soon afterwards, her son Paul called her to tell her about the unfolding tragedy.
“It wasn’t known until a few hours later what the scope of the tragedy would be,” she said.
“Knowing in our hearts that we would have known some of these poor innocent victims or their siblings from our nursery school music programmes, the wait for the list of names of the victims was unbearable.
“And now, three days later, we are reminded of the horror as we start to put these poor, innocent souls to rest.”
Her sister, who emigrated to the US with her and their brother, Matt Wilkie, when they were 21, said: “Something has to come out of this – some good has to come out of this. There has to be a change here in America.”
Addressing an interfaith vigil at Newtown on Sunday evening, Mr Obama recalled mass shootings of the past, telling his audience: “We can’t tolerate this any more. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.”
The president did not mention the word “gun”, but he cast his argument against violence in terms of another politically potent image – protecting America’s children.
“Can we honestly say we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?” he asked. “If we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough and we will have to change.”
The president went on: “In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens – from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators – in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.
“Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”
In a country with an estimated 300 million guns, where the right to bear arms is enshrined in the constitution, such efforts to overhaul gun control laws have faltered in the past.
But in light of the president’s speech, a US senator and lifelong member of the National Rifle Association (NRA) became the most prominent gun rights advocate to speak out, stating that it was time for the debate to move beyond political rhetoric and begin an honest discussion about reasonable restrictions on firearms.
“Never before have we seen our babies slaughtered. It’s never happened in America that I can recall, seeing this carnage,” Senator Joe Manchin said.
“Anybody that’s a proud gun owner, a proud member of the NRA, they’re also proud parents, they’re proud grandparents. They understand this has changed where we go from here.”
Lanza, 20, is believed to have used a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle in the school attack, a civilian version of the military’s M16. Versions of the AR-15 were outlawed in the US under a 1994 assault weapons ban. However, that law expired in 2004, and the US Congress, in a nod to the political power of the gun lobby, did not renew it.
Mr Manchin, a self-proclaimed “proud outdoorsman and hunter”, said he saw no reason for legitimate gun users to wield such a powerful weapon.
He said: “I don’t know anyone in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle. I don’t know anybody who needs 30 rounds in a clip to go hunting.
“We’re not talking about infringing on Second Amendment rights at all. What we’re talking about is having not only dialogue but movement on the type of weapons being used.”
Although he stopped short of outlining in detail what changes he would support, he added: “I want to call all our friends in the NRA, sit down and have this discussion. Bring them into it. They have to be at the table. We all have to.
“What we’re asking is all of us to come together to see a reasonable approach that we can take. I believe we can protect the Second Amendment, and do all of this, in a very intelligent, grown-up, and civil manner.”
Democrats say the “meaningful action” Mr Obama has spoken of must include a ban on military-style assault weapons and a look at how the country deals with individuals suffering from serious mental illness.