WASHINGTON — Twenty-six cyclists arrived Tuesday at the Capitol after a four-day ride from Newtown, bringing a plea for tighter gun limits to a reluctant Congress.
"Here's our message: Please put politics aside and get it done," said Monte Frank of Newtown, who organized the nearly 400-mile ride, with one rider for each of the 20 first-graders and six educators slain Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
They lined up on the muddy expanse of the west front lawn of the Capitol with the entire Connecticut congressional delegation in front of them. Their green bike jerseys had a simple message of peace, hope and love on the backs, but the lawmakers spoke of the more complicated reality of getting gun control legislation passed. The NRA and other gun enthusiasts have said that new limits on guns infringe on their Second Amendment rights.
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Despite the energy of the cyclists — who arrived on Capitol Hill just days before the three-month anniversary of the school massacre — the prospect of tougher gun laws appears to be fading. The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday passed legislation closing loopholes that allow some gun buyers to skip background checks. That bill is more popular in Congress than banning assault weapons or high-capacity clips, yet it just eked out of the Judiciary Committee on a 10-8 party-line vote.
"The people of Newtown have inspired the country and propelled the national conversation on gun violence in a way we haven't seen before," said Rep. Elizabeth Esty, a Democrat who represents Newtown.
Judiciary Committee passage of the background check bill would have been "fantasy" before Newtown, said Rep. Joe Courtney. But even with a majority of Americans supporting stricter gun controls, Sen. Richard Blumenthal warned that the legislative road is as tough as the one traversed by the bikers.
Rep. John Larson, meanwhile, asked: "How is it, Congress, that we would allow children to murder children without taking action? It's the efforts outside the Beltway … that will drive change."
Rep. Mike Thompson of California, who heads the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, predicted that the background check bill would become law.
Frank said the support the bikers felt along the way was proof that the country wants gun controls. He first conceived of the ride during an insomniac night after the shootings. "We weren't sleeping. Most people in Newtown spent their time crying or bumping into things."
Frank said he was scarred from having to tell his 11-year-old daughter, Sarah, that the dear teacher she had loved in third grade, Vicki Soto, had been gunned down.
Sarah, her strawberry hair blowing in the breeze, cuddled up to her father during Tuesday's news conference. Frank and the other riders had pushed through insistent rain for much of their last leg of the ride, until the sun came out in time for their Capitol news conference.
Sarah said she was glad that she joined her father for his arrival at the Capitol. "If I didn't come, I think I'd feel really, really guilty I didn't do anything," she said.
Many of the riders had at least some connection to the victims. Bill Muzzio of Newtown has daughters who went to Sandy Hook Elementary. He biked past the home of 6-year-old Jack Pinto regularly and figures he waved at Jack and his family dozens of times last year as the boy played in his front yard.
Matthew Emeott lived in the same Woodbury neighborhood as Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung, although he did not know her. And Chris McDonnell, father of victim Grace, rides with many of the bikers, who belong to various cycling teams. McDonnell and Rep. Jim Himes rode the first leg of the trip with the group as it left Newtown on Saturday.
Emeott told lawmakers that he had never been to Washington before and enjoyed the police motorcade into the nation's capital.
Riders said they sped through various towns along the way with police escorts and were buoyed by honking horns and cheers, and even a truck driver who rolled down his window to salute their effort.
"We felt like we were doing something special the whole way down," said Muzzio, an executive in a realty firm. "Everything we do helps support our congressional team to make something happen."
The trip was challenging even for the many experienced riders in the pack.
"It was definitely a long ride, but for a great cause," said Chris Peck, an engineer and father of two children at a different Newtown elementary school.
For Newtown Police Officer Jeff Silver, it was really a stretch. Unlike his lithe teammates, he isn't a regular biker, or even a regular athlete. But, he said, "I'm doing whatever I can to help prevent a tragedy like this from happening again."
Silver said that pretty much "everything" was sore after seven or eight hours at a time on the bike.
Suzie Colbert, a flight attendant and substitute teacher, said after the event that she had ridden her own bike across the Potomac because it was the least she could do after the Newtown team rode so far. She's said she's not an activist but this is "just something that grieves my heart." As the lawmakers spoke, she held her handmade sign saying, "Dear Congress – Please Do Something soon!"
She said the Newtown riders made a difference. "I honestly believe they are listening," she said, pointing at the Capitol dome.