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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.

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.”

COMMON GROUND

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.”

We don’t see this as an ideological debate,” Mr. Cox said. “We see it as a matter of regulation, common sense, safety and public health.”

BROADENING THE COALITION

For some activists like Ms. Pacchiana, the defeat at the federal level in April only deepened their commitment to seeking legislative change and to broadening their base of support. Several members of the Newtown Action Alliance had begun reaching out to religious leaders in nearby cities like Hartford and Bridgeport, places plagued by the impact of gun violence long before Newtown.

On Thursday, a sister organization, the Newtown Foundation, held a vigil in Washington, D.C., for all victims of gun violence. It included people from Newtown, but also those affected by mass shootings in Colorado, Arizona, Virginia and Wisconsin, and by gun violence in cities in from California to Illinois.

Sarah Clements, 17, was in her high school physics class at the time of the shooting. Her mother is a second-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School – the same teacher who pulled two students from the hallway into a classroom, likely saving their lives. The month after the shooting, Ms. Clements travelled to a march in Washington, D.C. with her father and her life has been a blur of activism ever since.

“I had finally found this outlet where I could take the pain and the shock I was feeling and turn it into action,” she said. Now she heads the Junior Newtown Action Alliance, a group with 20 core members who work on their own initiatives; she believes it’s the first time an advocacy group combatting gun violence has formed a youth chapter.

She is not fazed by the length or difficulty of the road ahead. In meetings with federal legislators, she has reminded them that she and her friends are nearing voting age. The NRA and other gun lobby groups “had this incredible network that they had been working on not just in D.C., but in states, for over three decades,” she said. “We’ve had 11 months.”

Back in Newtown, community leaders have declined to hold any town-wide commemorations of the anniversary and have asked the media for privacy as the day approaches. Some local families, including a number of the parents of victims, have already left town, preferring to be somewhere else.

Mr. Cox will be in Newtown. Though he doesn’t consider himself religious, he expects to go to a church service on Saturday morning, to be around people and join with members of his community. The bells will ring 26 times. That afternoon, 20 families will once again climb Holcombe Hill.

NEWTOWN'S ACCIDENTAL ACTIVISTS ON GETTING INVOLVED

“I feel guilty every day that I ignored gun violence that was occurring in this country until it ended up on my doorstep. … Unfortunately, because of what occurred here, we were given a voice in this debate. I learned that if we don’t use our voice and share our voice with others, then we are not doing what we should be doing as people.”

Monte Frank, lawyer

“I’ve shot guns. I’ve let my kids shoot guns. I have nothing against guns. I have a problem with the pervasiveness of guns and the selfishness of some extreme factions of gun owners.”

David Ackert, chairman of the Newtown Action Alliance

“I’ve always been very aware that America has a real, real problem with the worship of the almighty gun… when it comes to your town, you’ve got no choice but to jump in and try to do something.”

Scott Wolfman, president of Wolfman Productions

“My passion was how we raise our children and I knew something about that. And I felt guns could get too vitriolic and it scared me… I’m not a gun owner, but I have family members who are. We’ve had healthy discussions. I’ve learned to respect their point of view, but it’s not an area I want to fight in.”

Suzy Hayman DeYoung, co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise

“I’ve seen the progress that we’ve made in one year. I’ve met the most unbelievably courageous and resilient and persistent people. I know we’re on the right side of history… Americans’ eyes are being opened. It might take a little time, but we are moving forward.”

Sarah Clements, founder, Junior Newtown Action Alliance

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