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Sarah Clements, 17, a resident of Newtown, Connecticut outside the U.S. Captiol building in Washington DC where she was this week handing out printed material related to gun violence to U.S. members of Congress. (LOUIE PALU FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Sarah Clements, 17, a resident of Newtown, Connecticut outside the U.S. Captiol building in Washington DC where she was this week handing out printed material related to gun violence to U.S. members of Congress. (LOUIE PALU FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

How Newtown took on America's gun culture Add to ...

On the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, Rob Cox was on a flight from London to New York. When the plane landed at 1 p.m., he turned on his phone to discover a deluge of text messages. The first was from a friend in Denmark: Please tell me your son wasn’t in that school, it said.

He rushed home to Newtown, Conn. His two boys, then 12 and 14, were safe but so many other children were not. That morning, Adam Lanza had shot and killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, among them 20 first graders.

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The days that followed were a blur of grief, shock and sleeplessness. A group of 20 families gathered that weekend to cry and walk up Holcombe Hill, the highest point in town. “We were asking questions,” recalled Mr. Cox, 46. “How could this happen? How could this happen in our town? What’s wrong with our society?”

It didn’t take long to start translating those questions into a desire to act. “We wanted to help our town and our neighbours,” said Mr. Cox, a financial journalist who grew up in Newtown. “We also wanted to help our country.”

In the following weeks, the ranks of Newtown’s “accidental activists” – as some of them call themselves – began to grow. They included people like Miranda Pacchiana, a social worker, David Ackert, an advertising executive, and Sarah Clements, a high-school student. Prior to the shooting, none had any experience in advocacy or lobbying. While aware of the debate over tightening restrictions on guns, they hadn’t paid close attention to it.

Their journey in the next 12 months would be an attempt to change America, which has the highest number of firearm deaths per capita in the developed world. During that time, they discovered first-hand the contours of the country’s debate over guns. They learned about terminology – “gun control,” for instance, is considered too divisive – and about how fear animates the behaviour of legislators. And they learned how to regroup after defeat, whether with renewed commitment or a shift in focus.

At the federal level, there has been no new legislation curbing the purchase or ownership of guns since the shooting in Newtown. In April, a bipartisan bill to expand background checks failed to win the 60 votes it needed to proceed in the U.S. Senate, despite the fact that polls showed an overwhelming majority of Americans supported the step.

At the state and local level, there have been victories and losses for those who favour stronger limits on guns. In the wake of the massacre, Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, Maryland and New York all passed new laws constraining how guns and ammunition could be sold, with lesser victories in California and New Jersey. But in places like Illinois, gun-rights activists notched a major win: In July lawmakers reversed the state’s long-standing ban on carrying concealed weapons.

Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California and an expert on the gun debate, said the tightly fought battles over the past year are themselves “a sign of how much things have changed” since Newtown. “We’ve seen a re-invigoration of the gun-control movement.”

Those in Newtown who have joined the push to reduce gun violence say they are prepared for a marathon effort. The federal vote on background checks in April was “the first mile, the second mile” of that race, said Mr. Cox, who works at Thomson Reuters. “You’ve got 24 more to go.”

‘YOU'RE A DIFFERENT PERSON’

In Sandy Hook, the hamlet where the shooting took place, the lampposts are decorated with pine needles and red bows. The local firehouse, where parents gathered last December to discover whether their children had survived, is once again a place where residents can buy wreaths or balsam fir trees for Christmas. For a visitor on a recent winter afternoon, it is the stillness that is most striking: Unlike a year ago, there are no television trucks, no procession of visitors leaving flowers.

A few kilometres away, on a bucolic winding road among tall trees, sits Miranda Pacchiana’s house. Her three children – now 17, 15 and 11 – all attended Sandy Hook Elementary. Just up the hill to the east is the street where Adam Lanza lived with his mother, Nancy. She was his first victim, killed with her own gun as she slept.

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