BETHLEHEM, Conn. (AP) — The Paradis and D’Avino family knows guns. They’ve owned them and enjoyed hunting and target shooting. Shooting was just part of life, like the time after Thanksgiving dinner in 2009 when a guest of husband and wife Peter Paradis and Mary D’Avino brought out an AR-15 rifle he had in the car.
Together, with their children, the couple spent time shooting at a tree in their backyard on five acres off heavily wooded Route 61.
Paradis and his stepdaughter, Hannah D’Avino, recalled that holiday afternoon recently. They sat their kitchen table and reminisced about Hannah’s sister, Rachel D’Avino.
Rachel D’Avino died Dec. 14, 2012, inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Twenty first-grade students and six staff members died when Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old Newtown resident who had attended that elementary school, stormed into the building with a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle. He shot his way through classrooms, then killed himself as police converged.
The rifle that killed their stepdaughter and sister was the same kind of military-style rifle the family had shot together that Thanksgiving Day. They’re commonly called assault weapons, a term once applied to fully automatic weapons used on the battlefield but now applied to semi-automatic military copycats given the same look, but not the ability to fire continuously with one pull of the trigger.
Rachel’s murder has not marred her family’s memory of that holiday afternoon. For a family of marksmen, it also has not changed their views about guns.
After months of silence, Hannah D’Avino and Peter Paradis said they feel compelled to speak publicly: They are not happy that Rachel D’Avino’s name and her memory are being used to push for more and tougher gun legislation.
Their tragedy, they say, has been hijacked for political gain, to further a message with which they disagree.
“We’re very frustrated mainly because the 26 families got lumped together. We’re 26 families made of individuals that all have different opinions,” Hannah D’Avino said. “It’s like people are speaking for me and speaking for my sister. They don’t know her and they don’t know us.”
Paradis and D’Avino note that the only firearm-related injury or death in their family happened when Rachel was killed. She joined them in target shooting and was a good shot, they said.
That’s not all they remember of her — it is a small detail of a life remembered mostly for her short career as a behavioral analyst and her work with autistic children and their families. Rachel D’Avino carried a passionate desire to help autistic children, to improve their quality of life and their families. The family home’s solarium is filled with gifts sent by strangers: drawings, letters, jewelry from people touched by her story, and by her tragic death. The family continues to raise money in Rachel’s name for research and services for autistic children and their families.
The family has been reluctant to talk publicly, largely because of unprofessional treatment by media representatives. Days after Rachel’s death, they were inundated with requests for interviews. They were frustrated by repeated attempts by producers and reporters who hoped to land their angle of the Newtown story.
Hannah D’Avino “friended” a woman on Facebook after the woman said she was a friend of Rachel’s. That woman later turned out to be a producer asking to interview her. Another woman got past a state trooper stationed at the front of the family’s driveway, saying she was a friend of Rachel who wanted to bring a basket of packaged muffin mix to the family. Inside was a card containing a business card from a producer at CNN.
They switched off the television and its continuous coverage after hearing too much misinformation being reported in the first few days of media frenzy.
On Dec. 15, at 1:30 a.m., they officially learned that Rachel D’Avino had been killed. A state trooper with three psychologists arrived at their door.
At first, Hannah D’Avino said, she was angry. Lanza killed himself so there was nowhere to direct her frustration. Her gut reaction was that guns were the problem, she said.
“As time went on, my values came back and I became more rational,” Hannah D’Avino said. “Obviously, there was something wrong with (Adam Lanza) and something wrong in his house if had access to that many firearms.”
At the kitchen table, she glanced at her stepfather: “No one has access to your guns. You keep them locked up. That’s your responsibility as a gun owner.”
PARADIS, 60, GREW UP IN BRISTOL AND LEARNED TO SHOOT as a child at the Bristol Boy’s Club. There, he learned to shoot a BB gun, a pellet gun, and later a .22-caliber rifle. He hunted in his youth at his cousin’s home in Burlington but said he doesn’t care for hunting anymore. He enjoys target shooting and taught his three stepdaughters to shoot as he taught his two older sons. Paradis and Mary D’Avino married 16 years ago.
Hannah remembers a 45-minute speech from Paradis about responsibility and safety even before she could even clean a gun.
Rachel was an excellent shooter, they said. Rachel and her boyfriend would go out in the backyard and shoot with a pellet gun they owned, they said.
Paradis isn’t a conservative Republican. He says he’s independent and has voted for Republicans and Democrats. When it comes to local politics, he’ll vote for anyone that knocks on his door and shakes his hand, he said.
While he disagrees with President Barack Obama’s politics, he has nothing but praise for the president about how he treated their family following the shooting.
Paradis and the D’Avino family had the opportunity to meet with Obama at Newtown High School when he visited days after the tragedy. Families of the victims were in three separate rooms. Rachel’s family was in one room with all the adult victims.
Efforts were made to protect the family’s privacy, they said. Trucks were positioned to block cameras from a back entrance and bags were placed over the surveillance cameras in the school. “I have to say meeting the president was an honor. He’s a very compassionate man, very genuine. I have to appreciate what he did,” Paradis said. “What I don’t appreciate is the politics. He used (the shooting) for his agenda. Our governor did the same thing. That’s totally wrong.”
Paradis and D’Avino said they aren’t opposed to any gun control. Instead of enacting new federal laws, Paradis said, existing federal laws should be enforced. They also didn’t support Connecticut’s new gun laws that were passed in April that widened the definition of “assault weapon.” That law has banned hundreds of guns by declaring illegal any gun with more than one military-style feature, including pistol grip, a fixed magazine of more than 10 rounds, or a collapsible stock.
“The shooter in Newtown didn’t use an assault rifle, he used an assault-style rifle. It’s much different. He could have used a much larger caliber, the same semi-automatic stuff and he could have done a lot more damage,” Paradis said. “But hey, we all had political agendas, didn’t we?”
They say more needs to be done about mental illness, which they say is the true reason Rachel and the others died. They tried to discuss this with members of Sandy Hook Promise, a group formed in the days following the shooting, but their concerns were dismissed, they said. No one from Sandy Hook Promise returned calls for comment.
“Our big thing, it’s not the gun that killed the kids. It’s the mental illness that killed the kids and his mother. It’s a lot easier to take and ram through gun control because it doesn’t cost anything to ban it. To put a program in for the mentally ill, that’s going to cost money so you can’t go that way,” Paradis said.
More should be done to ban access to guns by the mentally ill, and doctors should be able to register names of people who should not own or have access to guns, he said.
Both a spokesman for Gov. Dannel Malloy, a gun control supporter, and a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy, whose first speech on the floor as a newly elected senator was for tougher gun laws, said mental health concerns need to be addressed.
Paradis said he and his family didn’t ride on Air Force One with family of Sandy Hook victims and the president, on a trip to lobby for new gun legislation. They spoke with Vice President Joe Biden, but did not meet with him when he visited Connecticut to call for tougher restrictions on guns.
“What am I going to do?” Paradis said. “I’m going to say I’m not for gun control. I’m not fitting the president’s agenda.” And neither, he and his stepdaughter believes, would Rachel.