Ms. Pacchiana, 44, and her husband have lived in Newtown for 20 years. Since the shooting, she has travelled numerous times to Washington, D.C. to petition legislators and helped publicize a documentary about gun violence in urban areas. Her mother recently told her, “You’re a different person than you were a year ago,” Ms. Pacchiana said. “I’ve never been this outspoken, I’ve never dedicated this kind of time to an issue.”
In the weeks after 12/14, as some in the community refer to the shooting, Ms. Pacchiana became involved with the Newtown Action Alliance, an all-volunteer group pushing for stronger gun laws. It has sent a contingent to the nation’s capital roughly every three months over the past year.
In the spring, a group of about 20 people from Newtown, including teachers, a minister, a rabbi, and family members of the victims, sat down with the chief of staff for a Republican member of Congress. Each person talked about their connection to the tragedy. One parent related how her son was in the hallway of the school and saw the shooter enter before a teacher grabbed him and another student, pulling them into her classroom. Listening to the accounts, a man from Newtown – who later told Ms. Pacchiana he never cries – began to sob.
At the end, the group asked about the congressman’s views on a new piece of gun-safety legislation. The staff member, respectful but uncomfortable, said that the legislator’s view was that universal background checks wouldn’t make a difference, Ms. Pacchiana recalled. Over the course of that day, the group split up and went on to meet with 30 more legislators.
They learned rapidly about the mobilizing prowess of the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association. Legislators often said they’d like to help but claimed their hands were tied, said Ms. Pacchiana, saying their office was receiving 20 phone calls opposed to gun restrictions for every one call favouring them.
The same dynamic played out at the state level. Mr. Cox remembers going to meet legislators in Springfield, the capital of Illinois, back in May when that state’s governor was pushing to pass gun legislation that would limit the number of bullets in a magazine to 10.
That particular Monday morning, a state legislator walked into a meeting with members of Sandy Hook Promise, the group Mr. Cox helped to found, which works to prevent the causes of gun violence and assist the local community. The lawmaker, a Democrat from a more rural part of the state, didn’t know the details of the proposal. But he did know it had stirred up a hornet’s nest: His office had been deluged with phone calls and voice mails from gun enthusiasts.
“He’s getting 2,000 of these calls,” Mr. Cox said. “You see how scared the politicians are, you see how frightened they are.”
In early April, a major package of gun-control legislation, including a move to expand background checks, failed in the U.S. Senate. Families of Sandy Hook victims had actively lobbied members of Congress, together with an array of existing gun-control groups and several new ones formed in the wake of the mass shooting in Newtown.
Senators like John McCain of Arizona and Mark Begich of Alaska made the time to meet with families, even if they finally voted against the background-check bill. In the end, the measure received 54 votes in the Senate, just short of the 60 it needed to overcome a procedural hurdle. President Barack Obama called it a “shameful day for Washington.”
For Mr. Cox’s group, the setback was a cue to re-evaluate. Over the summer, it conducted focus groups with male and female gun owners in three different places: Nashville, Tenn., Phoenix, Ariz., and Schaumburg, Ill. “The idea was to try to understand how you can have this conversation with folks,” he said. “Where everyone found common ground was on this conversation about parenting.”
Those insights grew into a new initiative, launched last month by Sandy Hook Promise, where three parents of victims now work. Called “Parent Together,” the campaign will focus on sharing specific tools for local communities to address issues surrounding mental health and gun safety. In announcing the project, the group wrote that the time had come to reorient the debate “away from polarizing inaction and anger.” More broadly, its approach would be to move the conversation from one of “gun control versus freedom” to that of “a parent’s love for their child.”