Sandy Hook Father Becomes Reluctant But Compelling Spokesman For Gun Control

Neil Heslin holds a 2006 photograph of himself and his son, Jesse Lewis, who was killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. (MARK MIRKO)

Heslin does not hesitate to describe his son's fatal injuries. Jesse was shot twice in the head. He was grazed on the side of the head, and he was shot in the forehead at the hairline.

"That wasn't just a killing …. It was a massacre," Heslin said. "He didn't just go in and shoot each victim one time, or to kill them … That's clear from the condition of the victims."

Heslin favors background checks for all gun purchases. He believes that background checks should include an inquiry about the mental status of the gun purchaser and other people in the gun purchaser's home.

He said he supports the Second Amendment, though it is difficult to reconcile his belief knowing that guns in the homes of law-abiding citizens can sometimes lead to deadly consequences. The gunman's mother, Nancy Lanza, apparently was a law-abiding gun owner.

Heslin also believes that schools would benefit from armed guards and bulletproof glass.

Heslin favors anything that would have saved his son and the others at Sandy Hook. He says he'd give anything.

A Hard Worker

One year, Heslin remembers, Jesse wanted to buy his mom a card.

"He said, 'I gotta earn some money,' and, of course, I would have given him the money, or whatever he wanted, I'd take him to get his mom a present," Heslin said.

Instead, Jesse asked a neighbor for work. He picked dandelions from a neighbor's yard for a penny a piece and earned "eight bucks or so," Heslin said.

Jesse's father remembers him as a boy with a strong work ethic, an inquisitive mind and a commitment to work until a job was complete. He wanted to work in construction like his father, who operates large machinery, including bulldozers, excavators and cranes. Heslin also is a residential contractor.

"He'd say, 'We're not leaving until the job is done, Dad.'"

In many cases, the job was half the fun, Heslin said, recalling that he and Jesse were in the process of restoring a 1948 Ford 8N tractor and had even managed to get the engine running.

Jesse also wanted to make his own money by saving bottles to return for the deposit, and even collecting scrap metal to be sold at a redemption center.

When he wasn't helping his father with a job, Jesse played soccer in a league, and he liked other sports, such as baseball and football. He loved dogs and riding horses, like the ones at his mother's small farm in Sandy Hook, Heslin said.

"Every year he used to raise chickens … and he'd give them to his mother for Mother's Day," Heslin said. "We incubate them and we'd get the chicks and he'd raise them. We had the lights set up."

Jesse also liked to fish, whether it was in a stream by his home, at Lake Zoar in Newtown or angling for bluefish off a dock in Long Island Sound. He collected shells found in the sand at Long Beach, a strip of barrier beach along the coast in Stratford.

Jesse was loud and fearless. His father has a photo of Jesse play-wrestling with a pit bull. It's one of hundreds that Heslin keeps on his Blackberry, along with videos of Jesse demolishing a plasterboard wall, riding a bicycle in circles in the driveway and swinging on a swing set.

"He wasn't afraid of anything," Heslin said. "He thought he could conquer the world."

Christmas Memories

Jesse died five years to the day after the death of his paternal grandmother. Heslin's mother, Joan Heslin, was 75 when she died Dec. 14, 2007.

So, on Dec. 13, when Jesse said he thought it was going to be the best Christmas ever, Heslin explained that he is always a little sad around the anniversary of his mother's death. Jesse asked about heaven. Heslin remembers reassuring him, saying: "When you die, I'll be there to come get you."

"We got into the true meaning of Christmas was giving and not receiving," said Heslin, who was raised Catholic and describes himself as spiritual, as well as a believer in heaven for children and an afterlife.

In the days after the shooting, Heslin said, the outpouring of gifts, letters and other signs of support from all over the world confirmed Jesse's belief.

"He was right. It was the best Christmas ever, because people were reaching out to help, and giving to people that needed," Heslin said. "So, he was right. He wasn't here to enjoy it, but, regardless, it was still the best Christmas ever, looking at it that way."