North Country teacher’s testimony about Sandy Hook draws scoffs at State House

  • Amy Lawton, a middle school teacher from Easton, stands outside her home on Tuesday. Lawton is the stepdaughter of Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung, who was killed during the shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December of 2012. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Amy Lawton outside her Easton, New Hampshire home Tuesday evening. In the four years since Sandy Hook, Lawton has rarely spoken publicly about how the shooting has impacted her family.“I’m not one to seek out the limelight,” she said. “I’ve just been trying to kind of quietly rebuild my own life.” GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 2/8/2017 7:30:48 PM

Amy Lawton hadn’t been planning to come to Concord to testify on a bill that would allow people to carry concealed weapons without a permit. In fact, she first heard about the hearing the day before it happened.

Lawton, a middle school English teacher who lives in the tiny northern town of Easton – population 250 – was on the fence about going.

But she had a story to share; her stepmother is Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School who was killed in 2012 along with five other staff and 20 elementary school students, in one of the most horrific school shootings the country has seen.

As she stood in Representatives Hall last Wednesday, speaking about the lingering effects Sandy Hook has had on her and her children’s lives, Lawton heard something she wasn’t expecting: Laughter.

She abruptly stopped her testimony. She looked stung.

“Please don’t laugh,” she said into the microphone. “That’s rude.”

After that, Lawton said the rest of her testimony was a bit of a blur.

“I remember hearing at least one person laugh,” she said by phone this week. “I also remember hearing this kind of noise, which is why I paused. I’m not exactly sure what happened.”

After the hearing was over, Lawton said a man came up to her and apologized for laughing.

She said the experience was demoralizing since she made the 90-mile trip to testify at the State House for the first time precisely because she wanted people to hear about her experience.

“It felt like when I was down there, that it didn’t matter, that people weren’t listening,” she said. “When they laughed, it was so devastating. You don’t even know the courage it took to come down here.”

Clai Lasher-Sommers, a resident of Westmoreland and victim of gun violence who was also there to testify against the bill said she heard laughter and then someone in the audience telling people to stop it.

“No matter what, we’ve experienced this tragedy,” Lasher-Sommers said. “She was brave enough to share her story and she was treated like that. Certainly, it’s not acceptable.”

Susan Olsen, the legislative director for the Women’s Defense League of New Hampshire, was sitting behind Lawton and leaned over to ask if she was okay after her testimony.

Olsen said she didn’t hear any laughter or ugly comments.

“Maybe there was nervous laughter because of her circumstances,” Olsen said. “I think everybody there was listening carefully. I told her that there wasn’t anybody there that wouldn’t defend her right to say what she believed. It was pretty brave.”

Deciding to speak

In the four years since Sandy Hook, Lawton has not spoken publicly about how the shooting affected her family.

“I’m not one to seek out the limelight,” she said. “I’ve just been trying to kind of quietly rebuild my own life.”

But after learning about the concealed carry bill making its way through the state legislature, she felt compelled to say something.

“I felt a responsibility,” Lawton said. “When I heard about the hearing, I thought, ‘This is something I can really connect with, this is something I have an opinion about.’ ”

Concealed carry has long been an issue in New Hampshire – a state where gun owners must get a permit from their local police chief before carrying a concealed weapon. As committee members pointed out at the end of the hearing, past bills have been approved by the legislature and have ultimately been vetoed by Democratic governors.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has signaled his support for the measure, which is frequently referred to as constitutional carry. If the bill passes the full House today, it will head to Sununu’s desk.

Critics of the permit process argue it disproportionately impacts law-abiding citizens, and does not affect the safety of the state.

“Most people don’t want to go to the grocery store, the post office, wherever else they are and openly carry,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican and the bill’s prime sponsor. “They prefer to not be secretive about it, but just be respectful of their neighbors.”

Lawton said she’s not anti-gun, but she thinks the current permitting process should stay in place.

Standing in front of the microphone last week, Lawton talked about the lasting effects of Sandy Hook on her and her family.

“As a result of gun violence, I now carry with me an anxiety that hovers on the periphery of everything I do,” Lawton told lawmakers. “Sometimes it’s a minor presence. Sometimes its bad, like in the lock down drills in the elementary school where I teach, as I reassure my students they are safe from the bad guys.”

Lawton also spoke of her young son, who was 5 years old when the shooting at Sandy Hook occurred.

“He turns off the radio in the car now, because he doesn’t want to hear any bad news going on around the world,” she said. “He hates conflict, and often expects the worst. I think he sees more bad guys than he used to.”

When her son competed in a road race two years ago, he told his mom during the car ride home that he had been “kind of worried” there would be a bomb when he crossed the finish line.

‘Heard enough’

The commotion in Representatives Hall started after Lawton said she believes concealed carry permits can offer a measure of protection against gun violence.

“Some people will argue that carrying concealed weapons will prevent gun violence and help people protect themselves,” she said during her testimony. “This is a myth perpetuated by the NRA.”

Lawton said she understands that people are protective of their constitutional rights, but she thinks safety needs to be taken into account.

“To me, it seems obvious that you should be willing to be as safe as you can,” she said.

After over two hours of hearing testimony – most of it in favor of repealing the permitting process – the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted the bill ought to pass, sending it on to the full House.

Two committee members, including Democratic state Rep. Shannon Chandley of Amherst, disagreed with the immediate vote and wanted more time to consider written testimony.

“We receive thousands of emails, literally, on this topic,” Chandley said. “We need a chance to process it. We owe them the courtesy of reading their written testimony.”

But another representative objected during the hearing.

“I think we’ve heard enough. I don’t think I need to go through all this and spend my Saturday all day reading this thing and vote at a later date,” said state Rep. Larry Gagne, a Republican from Manchester. “I think a vote up or down on Senate Bill 12 should be here and now.”

The bill passed committee on a vote of 12-8. Lawton said the haste startled her.

“How can it not matter what people have said today?” she asked. “When I was there, I was trying to listen and learn from other people. I felt like that wasn’t reciprocated.”

At work the next day, Lawton talked to her middle school students about public hearings, how a bill becomes a law, “and modeling for them what it means to speak up, even if you know the inevitable outcome.”

“Even though I felt disrespected, I hope that I communicated to my students that what they think and say matters,” Lawton said.

She plans to return to the New Hampshire State House – to make her voice heard again.

“If anything, I think it’s strengthened my resolve to get more involved,” she said.

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)

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