NEWTOWN, Connecticut—Heart-rending funerals were held Monday for two six-year-old boys, as America began to say farewell to the 20 children slain in a school shooting that sparked calls for new gun laws.
The first burials, held under raw, wet skies, were of a pair of boys among those shot in Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut. On Tuesday, the first of the girls, also aged six, is to be laid to rest.
In all, on Friday, the gunman slaughtered 20 children aged between six and seven, six adults working at the school and his own mother, before turning one of his arsenal of high-powered firearms on himself.
The family of one boy, Jack Pinto, gathered at a funeral home in a century-old building in the center of the Connecticut town. Some 20 children of different ages came, along with about two dozen adults.
Jack Wellman, an eighth-grader who helped coach wrestling at the school, said fellow school wrestlers placed their sports medals in the coffin of Jack, a keen wrestler.
“He was an excellent kid,” Wellman said at a nearby deli afterwards.
Another participant came out in shock. “I just cannot describe it, it was sad. The message was just comforting,” she said. “Our hearts are heavy.”
All the schools in this prosperous and picturesque dormitory town were shut until at least Tuesday and the blood-spattered elementary school itself was to remain a closed crime scene indefinitely, authorities said.
“Healing is still going on,” Newtown police Lieutenant George Sinko said.
In the nearby town of Ridgefield, reports of a suspicious person prompted the brief lockdown and deployment of police Monday at all schools, indicating the jitters in the United States in the wake of the killings.
For Newtown, a quiet suburban community where the 20-year-old killer lived with his well-off mother, the start of funerals was hardly likely to settle the nightmare of what happened last Friday.
But the crime, in which the murderer carried a high-powered, military style rifle and two handguns, may have spurred change in the political landscape regarding rules on weapons ownership.
In an indication of how widely the shock has been felt, the Senate held a moment’s silence in Washington.
Late Sunday, President Barack Obama joined a vigil in Newtown and pledged to work for an end to mass shootings, which have now become a regular event in the United States — with half-a-dozen massacres since Obama took office.
“These tragedies must end,” Obama said, appearing to commit himself to a push for reform in his second White House term, possibly by urging the restoration of a federal ban on assault weapons like the one used in Newtown.
Earlier, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California promised to introduce a bill to ban assault weapons on the very first day of the next Congress, January 3.
And on Monday, Senator Joe Lieberman called for a broad commission that could bring opponents on the issue together to discuss curbing gun deaths.
Each year, more than 31,000 Americans die from gunshots, most of them self-inflicted, but more than 11,000 in homicides — five times as many as the death toll for US troops during an entire decade of conflict in Afghanistan.
“We’ve got to bring everybody to the table, including the gun manufacturers and the gun rights groups and the entertainment industry and just regular people,” Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent, told Fox News.
But with gun ownership protected by the US constitution and firearms deeply ingrained in American culture, attempts to restrict access have long been seen as a vote-losing proposition.
Bit by bit, the full picture of the horror and heroism in the school, where the deranged shooter, Adam Lanza, sprayed bullets into two rooms, was starting to emerge.
The husband of Dawn Hochsprung, the slain school principal, said she had told others around her to hide. Then she “and at least one other teacher went out and actually tried to subdue the killer.”
“I don’t know where that comes from. Dawn was 5’2,” he said.
“Dawn put herself in jeopardy and I have been angry about that, angry — until just now, when I met two women that she told to go under shelter while she actually confronted the gunman.”
One of the teachers, Janet Balmer, told CNN how the moment she heard gunshots she followed the lockdown routine that they’d recently practiced, then tried to act in front of her five-year-old charges as if all was well.
“We sat in the cubby away from the door so no one could see us, read them a story and talked to them,” she said.
After agonizing minutes, police knocked at the door and told the children to leave — and “cover their eyes” to avoid being exposed to the gore.
“At five, covering your eyes and walking isn’t so easy. I just had them, you know, look towards the wall,” Balmer said.
No information about a possible motive, or whether Lanza had any diagnosed mental condition, has emerged. He is believed to have first shot his mother in their house before going to the school.
Police remained tight-lipped, but said they are making progress. “We definitely are peeling that onion back, layer by layer,” the state police spokesman said.
Newtown was the second deadliest school shooting in US history after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, in which South Korean student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before taking his own life.
In the previously most notorious recent incident, a 24-year-old, James Holmes, allegedly killed 12 people and wounded 58 others when he opened fire at a midnight screening of the latest Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado, in July.