WASHINGTON – As 26 cyclists who braved snow, sleet and rain on a 400-mile trek from Newtown, Conn., hit Capitol Hill Tuesday to push for gun control legislation, the weather changed from a drenching rain to clear blue skies.
Their arrival “not only brought out the sun, it brought out some action from the Senate Judiciary Committee,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., at an event on the West Lawn of the Capitol.
The committee that morning had approved a bill that would require universal background checks for gun purchasers, sending it to the full Senate for a vote.
The entire Connecticut congressional delegation greeted the cyclists, who call themselves Team 26 in honor of the 26 students and staff killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School earlier this year. The team wore kelly green and white cycling uniforms, which are Sandy Hook’s school colors.
“Here’s our message: Please put politics aside and get it done,” said Monte Frank, the head of the cycling team.
Speakers at Tuesday’s event repeatedly mentioned the physical toll the ride took on the cyclists, with Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., asking those in the audience to bring forward any “NASA heat blankets.”
“When we got tired we were motivated by the 26 angels… We are just bike messengers,” Frank said. The group got through the difficult parts of the ride, he said, thanks to encouragement from strangers along the way, including supporters who hugged them or honked their car horns.
The team brought two letters, both signed by the victims’ family members and community members, calling for “Congress to honor the memory of our loved ones.”
Frank introduced his younger daughter, Sarah, had been taught by Victoria Soto just a few years ago. Soto was among those killed in December at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School when Adam Lanza opened fire on a classroom of young children. Soto reportedly shielded her students from the gunfire, sacrificing her own life.
Team 26 cyclist Tom Officer, 60, said he has faith in the Connecticut congressional delegation to continue to push for reform and that he is confident that other recent shootings will put pressure on Congress to act.
“There’s been enough stuff going on with Aurora, Columbine and what happened at Tucson and hopefully this is enough where enough people will realize we need to get some common sense laws passed,” Officer said. “You know, we’re not legislators. We’re just citizens, and all we can do is just keep the awareness up and get the message out and that’s what we’re doing, and we’ve got faith.”
The Connecticut congressional delegation presented a letter of appreciation to each of the 26 riders.
In addition to the Connecticut lawmakers, Rep. Mike Johnson, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus’ Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, thanked the cyclists and said pro-gun control reform legislators face an uphill battle even though the vast majority of Americans support these “common-sense” laws.
“We can do something here; this is not the heavy lift it’s made out to be,” said Johnson, a congressman from California. “There already should be a background check bill on President (Barack) Obama’s desk.”
Team 26 supported the background check as well as the other components of Obama’s anti-gun violence plan.
The background check bill is expected by many observers to be passed by Congress in the coming weeks, though other parts of Obama’s plan, including bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, likely face a tougher road to passage.