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Gabe Zimmerman's mother moves lawmakers with pleas for reform

WASHINGTON – A packed congressional hearing room gave a standing ovation Wednesday to Emily Nottingham, whose testimony about her son killed in the 2011 Tucson shooting spree brought several people to tears.

Nottingham and a school official from Newtown, Conn., where a gunman opened fire in an elementary school last month, were among those testifying at the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee’s “call to action” on gun-violence prevention.

The Newtown shootings killed 26 people, including 20 children. Nottingham’s son, Gabe Zimmerman, was an aide to then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords when a gunman attacked at a public event, killing Zimmerman and five others and wounding 13, including the congresswoman.

Nottingham urged legislators not to give up on gun control and mental health system reforms, which she said will help protect the country’s youth.

'We have allowed ourselves to overemphasize gun rights to the detriment of other rights, including the most important, the right to be alive.'

“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,” Nottingham told the lawmakers. “Shore up your resolve, and keep working – to protect your staffers, our children, our nation. We need you to not give up.”

Her testimony came the same day that President Barack Obama unveiled a sweeping plan to reduce gun violence, calling for tightened gun control, increased safety at schools and improved mental health care.

The plan, spurred by the Newtown shootings, involved 23 executive actions that included removing barriers to background checks on gun buyers, ordering new research into causes and prevention of gun violence and launching responsible gun-ownership programs.

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The president also called on Congress to close background-check loopholes, ban assault weapons and magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, fund more school counselors or resource officers, and improve mental health services for young adults.

But not everyone in Congress welcomed the president’s suggestions.

U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale, said in prepared statement that Obama’s 23 executive orders will weaken the Second Amendment and that the public will not stand for his actions.

“The American people have shown quite clearly that they will not simply roll over while this administration seeks to undercut our founding principles in pursuit of its preferred European model of government,” Franks’ statement said.

The National Rifle Association said it looks forward to working to find ways to the protect children, through an improved mental health system, safer schools and tougher prosecution of criminals.

“Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation,” the statement said. “Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy.”

But some Democrats quickly embraced the president’s plan.

U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, a vice chair of the congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force and a survivor of the Jan. 8 attack, introduced Nottingham at the hearing.

Barber, who Tuesday introduced the Mental Health First Aid Act, said he was "pleased that the president stressed the importance of improving mental health services and called for mental health first aid training in his proposals this afternoon."

"We know that untreated or undiagnosed mental illness has been a factor in a number of the recent mass shootings," including the Jan. 8 shootings, he said in a statement after the hearing.

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U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Phoenix, said Obama’s plan included commonsense initiatives that will help prevent gun violence.

“This is the right thing to do, now more than ever, and so I call on my congressional leaders to support and work constructively with all parties to make sure that much-needed, balanced reforms to reduce gun violence are enacted,” Pastor said in a statement.

There were no apparent reservations at Wednesday’s hearing, where members of the audience were in tears listening to Nottingham and Newtown Public Schools Superintendent Janet Robinson. They were joined by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Chaska, Minn., Police Chief Scott Knight, the former chair of the International Association of Chiefs of Police Firearms Committee.

Each spoke about their experiences with guns and gun violence, from a numbers-based approach to describing the terror and aftermath of an attack.

“We, as a community, are struggling to pick up the pieces and determine what this new ‘normal’ looks and feels like,” Robinson said of Newtown. “Our sense of security has been shattered.”

Nottingham said her son was like many Washington staffers – young, idealistic and willing to work long hours on little more than adrenalin. She implored the more than 30 Democratic representatives at the hearing, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, to think how they would feel if they lost someone.

She said afterwards that she thinks her message was heard.

“I’m so glad that they were listening and that they cared enough to come to the hearing, to sit through it, and to really seem to want to think about what needs to be done in a serious, comprehensive fashion,” Nottingham said.

During her testimony, she said her son would be angry with the nation and Congress for letting families lose their feeling of safety, and for waiting so long to take action.

“We have allowed ourselves to overemphasize gun rights to the detriment of other rights, including the most important, the right to be alive,” Nottingham said.

TucsonSentinel.com’s Dylan Smith contributed to this report.

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Connor Radnovich/Cronkite News Service

Emily Nottingham is applauded at a congressional hearing where she testified about her son, Gabe Zimmerman, one of six people killed in a 2011 shooting in Tucson that also wounded 13 people, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Tucson.

Targeting gun-violence

President Barack Obama unveiled a plan that included legislative and administrative actions to stem the growth of gun-related violence in the country. The plan's 23 executive actions include:

  • Four actions to strengthen the background check system
  • Nominating a director to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
  • Directing the Centers for Disease Control to research gun violence
  • Providing incentives for schools to hire school resource officers
  • Providing first-responders and school officials with training for active-shooter situations
  • Launching a national campaign for safe and responsible gun ownership

The legislative recommendations included:

  • Requiring background checks on all gun sales
  • Banning military-style assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and armor-piercing bullets
  • Giving communities the chance to hire school resource officers and school counselors
  • Making sure young adults get treatment for mental illness