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Shirley Gillham was overcome with emotion Thursday as she read aloud the name of 5-year-old murder victim Max Walters to a group gathered at Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa.

Max and his mother, Kathryn, were shot to death in January in Las Vegas by the boy's father, Hans Walters, who then killed himself.

Though she never met Max and has no children of her own, Gillham said that hearing about innocent lives lost to gun violence impassions her.

"It's always harder when it's children," said Gillham, a volunteer community organizer. "They shouldn't be taken in the way they were taken. It's another baby taken far too young."

Gillham and about 60 others were in the square to show support for gun-control legislation.

Members of the group Organizing for Action read the names of some of the 146 children who have been killed by guns in the U.S. since the December mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., that sparked the latest round of national gun-control dialogue.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, chairman of the House gun violence prevention task force and co-sponsor of a bill to expand background checks, told the crowd that background checks for gun sales can work on the national level to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the dangerously mentally ill.

"We know that the background checks work," he said. "We need to get this thing passed. Don't give up hope. I will continue to push this thing until the day it's signed into law."

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane and District Attorney Jill Ravitch spoke in favor of Thompson's bill, which has more than 180 co-signers and is being debated in a House subcommittee.

"We need federal background checks," Zane said. "That is how we are going to protect people."

Polls show strong national support for background checks, but the Senate failed to pass a background-check measure in April. Thompson said his colleagues in Congress are out of step.

"We need to listen to the constituents," he said. There is 91 percent support for this. There is not 91 percent support in Congress."

California has relatively strict gun measures, but without federal laws, people can purchase weapons in other states and use them to commit crimes in California, said Ravitch, who cited a recent case she prosecuted in which a man bought a gun in Nevada and used it to kill a Healdsburg man.

"We've had a slight reduction in gun-related deaths in California, and I want to see that in the U.S.," Ravitch said. "California has some of the toughest gun laws in the country and it has made a difference."

Rally participants held signs that said "Background checks now," and "How many madmen will it take."

Gail Outlaw, 87, said she favors banning military-style weapons with high-capacity magazines.

"What we really need to do is get rid of the weapons of mass destruction, these guns that can kill 30 kids in a matter of minutes," she said.

Linda Hemenway, Sonoma County leader of Organizing for Action, said that her group supports gun control partly to keep guns out of schools.

"I want it to be safe to go to school," said Hemenway, who is also a teacher. "When parents send their children to school, they should be sure their children are safe. You shouldn't get killed going to school."