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Newtown victims' families in Washington, quietly pushing gun control

U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd R) and family members of children killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, disem
U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd R) and family members of children killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, disem

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Family members of the Newtown school shooting victims flew into Washington on Air Force One to press for gun-control legislation, but kept a low profile as they held private meetings with senators on Tuesday.

After coming to the capital aboard the presidential plane on Monday evening, the families had breakfast with Vice President Joe Biden. He said after the two-hour meeting, "I wish the members of Congress had been able to eavesdrop on the discussion in my home today."

The 11 family members stayed largely out of sight on the first of three days of lobbying in Washington, maintaining that private meetings with lawmakers would serve their cause better than grandstanding. They did hold a conference call with reporters.

"We're just private citizens who are now part of a club we never wanted to be in," said Bill Sherlach, whose wife Mary was the school psychologist at Sandy Hook Elementary School, one of six adults and 20 children killed in the December 14 attack.

"We're not up on all the political wranglings that go on," Sherlach said. "We're just the ordinary public, coming to the people that we elected to the offices nationwide and try to bring a program to the table that will be wide-ranging."

The shooting in the small Connecticut town horrified the country and prompted President Barack Obama to seek ways to prevent such massacres, including gun control. But his administration has struggled to gain support for legislation amid strong opposition from the powerful National Rifle Association.

The Newtown families are pushing for background checks to prevent criminals and the mentally ill from buying guns, and they want a provision to limit the capacity of gun magazines.

KEEPING POLITICS TO A MINIMUM

The families planned a series of private meetings with Democratic and Republican senators, but declined to name the lawmakers, except for Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who they said had agreed to be identified.

They said no senator had declined to meet with them. Senator Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat who faces a tough re-election race next year in a state where gun control faces stiff opposition, said his office would try to schedule a meeting.

Making the Capitol Hill meetings private would keep politics to a minimum, the families said.

Tim Makris, executive director of the advocacy group Sandy Hook Promise, said private meetings let legislators open up in a way public meetings don't.

"When it's public, unfortunately at times it can turn political and then nothing happens," he said.

The Senate is expected to hold a preliminary, test vote on a gun-control measure on Thursday, but Democratic Leader Harry Reid said the bill may not get past Republican procedural hurdles. Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said there was no bipartisan support for the effort.

Obama's proposals include expanded background checks for gun buyers, a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Makris said the Sandy Hook shooter brought 30-bullet magazines to the school and left smaller magazines at home.

"We know when the shooter stopped to reload, he made it possible for 11 children to escape," Makris said. "And we're left to wonder, if he had carried smaller magazines, and been forced to reload up to three times more ... would more children be alive?"

The group sought to present a human face to lawmakers.

Asked what the group could bring to the debate what other gun-control advocates could not, Mark Barden, whose 7-year-old son Daniel was killed in the shooting, told the conference call:

"Lots of people can discuss the issues from an intellectual perspective, but we bring a personal perspective."

(Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Richard Cowan; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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