Connecticut Moms Mobilize for Gun Violence Prevention in Wake of Shootings
Newtown residents Cece Floros, 10, and her mother Lisa, during a protest in front of the National Sport Shooting Foundation in Newtown.
Peter Casolino/New Haven Register
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Lisa Labella remembers the day, in 1999, when she became an activist for gun violence prevention.
“My daughter was 6 and my son 3 when the shootings happened at Columbine High School in Colorado,” she says. “Up until then, school shootings had mostly taken place in the South. But I remember that TIME magazine had an in-depth story that compared the Littleton, Colo., community to my town of Trumbull. That was what made me fully realize that this could happen to us. I felt I had to do something.” That’s why she began working with Connecticut Against Gun Violence (CAGV), a Southport-based organization whose mission is to identify, develop and promote passage of common-sense legislation designed to enhance gun safety.
Henrietta Beckman remembers the day, in 2002, when she became an activist for gun violence prevention.
Her 20-year-old son, Randy, was shot to death in his car just one street over from her North End neighborhood in Hartford. “Randy was shot in the head, leg and arm. He lived for four days. He had a 4-month-old son who’s 11 now.” Adding to her heartbreak is the fact that the case is still unsolved. “The police have a suspect that they’re 99.9 percent sure is guilty,” she says, “but they haven’t found a witness who’ll come forward.” She found little consolation in learning her son’s death was the result of mistaken identity. “Somebody sent word back, ‘Oh, we’re sorry, Mrs. Beckman, we didn’t know it was Randy.’ I said, ‘Whoopee. You shouldn’t be out here shooting nobody.’” Shortly thereafter, she co-founded Mothers United Against Violence, a grassroots community organization that promotes gun-violence awareness and activism and provides support to those who have lost loved ones at the barrel of a gun.
Erin Nikitchyuk remembers the day—Dec. 14, 2012—when she became an activist for gun violence prevention.
That was when her 8-year-old son, Bear, student “office assistant” for the week at Sandy Hook Elementary School, might’ve wound up directly in shooter Adam Lanza’s path but for a quick-thinking teacher who pulled him out of harm’s way. “He was taking papers to the front office and was in the hallway just outside the door when the shooter broke in,” she says. She admits she wasn’t fully aware of what was happening until later in the day.
“Just as I got in my car to drive to work, a friend called to say, ‘Are you on your way?’” she says. “I was like, ‘On my way where?’ She said, ‘To the school! You’ve got to go get Bear!’” Unable to park close by, Nikitchyuk became increasingly alarmed by the chaos that grew as she walked toward the school. “At one point, a neighbor drove by, hysterical, screeching at me, ‘I’ve seen him! Bear’s okay!’ So before I even realized I had anything to panic about, I knew he was all right.” She found him huddled with his teacher, Robin Walker, “who’s taught all my kids; she’s like one of the family,” she says. “When I reached them, Mrs. Walker hugged me and said, ‘The bullets weren’t as close as they seemed.’” Nikitchyuk has since become a co-founder of the Newtown Action Alliance, which focuses on legislation, victim outreach and education.
After December’s shootings in Newtown, Bob Welch, Wisconsin lobbyist for the National Rifle Association (NRA), dismissed the resulting calls for solutions to gun violence as “the Connecticut effect,” and scoffed that public outrage would be short-lived.
Not so fast, Bob. This being the month of Mother’s Day, we’d like to talk about something we call “the Mom effect,” which has been anything but ephemeral. Certain determined Connecticut women have been addressing the problem of gun violence for years. But, as a result of what happened in Newtown, in 2013 we’ve reached a tipping point, where women in numbers greater than ever have been an indefatigable driving force on the issue—lobbying for commonsense gun laws, supporting families of victims, building coalitions and educating the public.
Their voices—raised at town halls, legislative hearings and public marches—have clearly been heard. Last month, the state that already had the fifth toughest gun laws in the U.S. (according to The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence) made them even stronger: adding more than 100 guns to the state’s list of banned assault weapons, creating the nation’s first statewide registry of people convicted of crimes involving the use or threat of dangerous weapons and requiring background checks for all firearms sales, including at gun shows.
To suggest that our mom activists held sway over the legislature may sound grandiose, but it’s not, says state Sen. John McKinney (R-Newtown), current Senate Minority Leader and potential gubernatorial candidate. “They had a tremendous influence on the overall passage of the bill. They were very well organized, and they got a lot of people involved in contacting their state representatives who were well-versed on the issues, had a clear agenda and were very passionate.
“I compare this outcome to a 2011 bill that had a public hearing in the judiciary, which demanded that the size of magazines be 10 bullets or less,” he says. “Of the 200 or so constituents who signed up to testify, all but a handful were against the bill. Gun-rights supporters have traditionally been well-organized; people who want gun legislation, not as much. Dec. 14 changed that.”
As a result, McKinney adds, a “tremendous number” of the pro-legislation activists he spoke to “were first-timers who said, ‘I’ve never called my state senator before, but I’m calling you now.’ Any time you have a substantial number of people calling, writing and visiting with you on an issue, you have to take notice. To use their words, ‘The silent majority is not silent anymore.’” (It truly is a majority: Polls indicate that over 90 percent of Americans support background checks, while a smaller but consistent majority is in favor of measures like the ones Connecticut has enacted.)