Attorney Joel T. Faxon lives in Newtown and serves on its five-member police commission.
On the morning of Dec. 14, he was taking one of his three children to middle school. Approaching the front doors, he got a text message that all the town’s schools were on lockdown — a precaution that occurs from time to time due to the proximity of a state prison.
“I told my son, ‘Okay, something’s going on. Let’s get out of here,’” said Faxon, of the personal injury firm Stratton Faxon in New Haven.
Back in his own car, Faxon said he saw “the chief of police in his official car, headed to the Sandy Hook school, and I looked at my son and I said, ‘Oh my God, there must have been a shooting.’ The chief doesn’t respond to anything other than a very serious incident.
“Within a minute of that time, I got a news report text from the Hartford Courant, that said police were responding to incident on Dickenson Drive, and I thought, ‘There’s only one thing on that street. And that’s the school.’”
Faxon pulled over. “At that point, literally 50 state police and Newtown police cars went by us, and they all went to Sandy Hook Elementary School. I knew there had been some kind of a catastrophe there.”
Not wanting to interrupt the first responders on the scene, Faxon exchanged texts with another police commission member, James Viadero, who works as a Bridgeport police captain. “He was filling me in on what was happening, in real time.”
While news was leaking out slowly — TV news outlets initially reported only a single death — Faxon said the numbers the Bridgeport officer was reporting “were just shocking.” The final death toll at the school included 20 pupils, six adults and the shooter.
For the next minutes and hours, Faxon focused on his role as a husband and father. “I had my son with me. My other son goes to another elementary school. Thankfully, he was with my wife, going to the doctor’s office for a checkup. My daughter, who is in the high school was in lockdown, and she was texting me, ‘Daddy, what’s going on?’ I knew she was safe.”
The saddest thing to watch was ambulance after ambulance heading to the scene of the mass shooting. “There were ambulances going down there [to the school], but there were no ambulances coming back to go to the hospital” with survivors, Faxon said. “Just like in 9/11, when the hospitals were all racing to be prepared for the wounded, who never arrived.”
The Sandy Hook shooting, of course, has spawned a nationwide debate over the use of high-powered firearms. One aspect of that debate had already occurred in Newtown, earlier this year, with Faxon in the middle of it.
Newtown sprawls over 60 square miles, making it one of the largest muncipalities in the state. Even with a population of about 25,000, there is ample open space, wooded areas and rolling hills. The town includes the Pequot Fish and Game Club and the Fairfield County Fish and Game Protective Association, which own land where members can legally fish in ponds and hunt pheasant.
But in recent years, town residents reported hearing shots in other rural parts of town — some of what sounded like automatic weapon fire. Eventually, the matter of these “unlicensed” gun ranges came before the police commission. “I’ve hunted for many years,” Faxon told the New York Times, “but the police department was getting complaints of shooting in the morning, in the evening, and of people shooting at propane gas tanks just to see them explode.”
Faxon drafted a proposed ordinance, which he said would have put “reasonable” constraints on the location of ranges and hours of operation. It included a provision that any shooting range, and the firearms used there, would have to be approved by the police chief. The police commission, which included three Republicans, “unanimously” approved the measure, Faxon said.
The measure went before a Town Council committee, which held hearings in August and September.
“There was an overzealous response in opposition,” Faxon said. “People from all over the state, purporting to cloak themselves in the Second Amendment, said their rights would be improperly taken from them if we tried to put any kind of safety regulations on a shooting range — which is ridiculous. There’s no Second Amendment protection for unfettered discharge of weapons anywhere, any time.”
The proposed ordinance was rejected. “As it is now, you could walk to the edge of your property and set up a shooting range,” he said.
Does he think his ordinance has a better chance of passing now? “It should have had legs then, and it certainly does now,” he said. “Safety with weapons should be everyone’s concern.”
Gaps In Law
The weekend after the shooting., Faxon said he tried to come to grips with it all, and to “console our neighbors and friends, and take care of our kids.” On Sunday, Dec. 16, Faxon and his family listened to President Barack Obama speak at a local church, where there was empathy for not only the victims and their families, but for the first responders from Newtown.
“These officers came upon a scene that no one should be required to experience. There’s going to be significant fallout in that regard,” he said. “One thing I’m doing as police commissioner here is being proactive in getting our first responders the support they need in dealing with the trauma they experienced in going into that school.”
Faxon also wants to address what he calls “a gap in our law.” A post-traumatic stress disorder-type of injury is generally not covered under workers compensation law, he said. “So there has to be a change to recognize that when you have a first responder that goes into this kind of situation, that they’re entitled to the protection of the law when they come out.”
As a police commissioner, how does he feel about putting officers in every school? Faxon said Newtown’s intermediate, middle and high schools already have what are known as school resource officers. No one ever thought they were needed in the elementary schools, he said. “But this may have changed the entire dynamic.”
Like others, Faxon wants students to have more access to mental health services. Like others, he wants the public to have less access to “military-style weapons” and high-capacity magazines. “There are no legitimate hunters who use assault weapons to hunt deer. The whole purpose of those weapons with that kind of capacity is to inflict mayhem.”
Faxon said he and the legal community are committed to helping Newtown heal. It needs to be “more than just a location where there was a tragedy. It needs to mean something positive for our country — it has to be converted into something positive, somehow. We will exert extraordinary effort to get something done here.”•