Connecticut Moms Mobilize for Gun Violence Prevention in Wake of Shootings
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.)
To call our new laws a result of “the Mom effect” may seem to suggest dads aren’t participating in gun-law reform but they are, and their numbers are growing. “I’m definitely seeing a lot more stubble,” says CAGV’s Labella. “I’d say that at one time the percentage of women to men in the movement was 80-20; now it’s closer to 60-40.” But polls indicate that there’s still a significant gender gap on the gun issue. “It’s about 20 points—almost as big as the gap we see on reproductive issues,” says Ron Pinciaro, executive director of CAGV. “This just seems to be a higher priority for women. When you talk to men one-on-one about events like Newtown, they’re just as horrified, but there isn’t the same passion for change. Maybe it’s just the way we’re wired.”
After Columbine, Labella volunteered for a number of gun-law reform initiatives, lobbying at the Capitol in Hartford and helping organize the Fairfield County chapter of the Million Mom March, a gun-control rally held on Mother’s Day, 2000, that drew 750,000 to Washington, D.C., and another 200,000 to satellite marches around the country. A year later, she became co-executive director of CAGV, an organization founded in 1993 by 11 women outraged at the accidental gun death of a 5-year-old in Bridgeport. Labella spent eight years there before leaving for a job at the Bridgeport Regional Business Council. Now, she’s taken a leave of absence from that job, and is back at CAGV as a volunteer, managing the organization’s community outreach.
There’s more to that role than simply dealing with the tidal wave of new memberships (35,000 at last count) that have come in since Sandy Hook. Labella also focuses on coalition building—to date, more than 300 clergy and over 50 organizations have signed on to support CAGV’s legislative agenda for comprehensive gun-violence prevention laws, including Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, the National Association of Social Workers and the Violence Policy Center of Washington, D.C. She’s also interested in fostering the many new grassroots organizations for gun-violence prevention that have sprouted in Connecticut this year. “It’s really a loose coalition of people that have never done this before,” Labella says. “We’ll go and speak to them if they want us to, and offer guidance regarding legislative lobbying, to help them understand the process better. We share information on how to testify at a public hearing, how to go about contacting legislators.”
One such grassroots connection has turned into a permanent partnership with March for Change (MFC), co-founded by Fairfield moms Meg Staunton and Nancy Lefkowitz. They sat down with CAGV’s Pinciaro the day after the Sandy Hook shootings, and announced a general meeting for the following Monday on Facebook. “We thought we were going to get together with five people around my kitchen table just to talk about, ‘Okay, how do we become part of the gun violence conversation?’” says Lefkowitz.
By Monday, they found they had 250 people signed up to attend, including 4th District U.S. Rep. Jim Himes. The group ended up meeting in a Westport church. “We knew there was going to be a lot of raw emotion in the room, and we decided to be the conduit,” she says. “We also knew that CAGV had been lobbying in Hartford on behalf of commonsense gun laws for a very long time. We decided to bring them what they were missing: Noise. We describe ourselves as the passion behind the politics. Our motto is, ‘Change the conversation, change the culture, change the law.’”
MFC’s first public event was a Valentine’s Day rally, featuring Gov. Dannel Malloy and Sen. McKinney. A crowd of 5,500—dominated by moms and kids who came on school buses—filled the grounds of the state capitol. “We support the Second Amendment, and an individual’s right to own a gun,” says Lefkowitz, echoing the attitude of other grassroots Connecticut organizations. “We just think it shouldn’t be without rational and reasonable regulations and limitations. Not everyone agrees, but this is a great country. You’re able to stand up for what you believe. What a wonderful thing to be able to show my kids.”
Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America (MDA)—originally known as One Million Moms for Gun Control—is a coalition entirely built on the Web. Founded by Indiana mom Shannon Watts in response to the Sandy Hook shootings, it now boasts more than 80,000 followers and 80 chapters, including three in Connecticut. Based on the model of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, MDA’s specific goals are to: 1. ban assault weapons and ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds; 2. require background checks for all gun and ammunition purchases; 3. report sale of large quantities of ammunition to the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and 4. counter gun industry lobbyists’ efforts to weaken gun laws—on both the local and federal level.
The first three are clearly legislative goals; the fourth is no less challenging given the gun-lobby’s reputation for intimidating and co-opting politicians. Still, the organization’s Connecticut membership spent the first quarter of 2013 tirelessly phoning, emailing and meeting with legislators, going to hearings and town halls and establishing a presence at events like the March for Change, Moms on the Hill in Washington, D.C., and Lobby Day in Hartford. The latter, held March 11, was initially set up as an opportunity for gun-rights groups to talk to legislators after Gov. Malloy and a bipartisan panel had announced proposals for state gun-law reform.
“There are times when we feel our freedom of speech is seriously squelched,” says Anne Tortora, head of MDA’s Eastern Connecticut chapter. At at day of testimony run by a General Assembly task force in January, NRA members and supporters “yelled at us and shouted us down,” says Central Connecticut chapter head Deborah Lewis. “It was just horrible.”
They’ve also dealt with their share of sexism from the opposition. “When the Stamford Advocate ran a piece on me, someone commented, ‘Ms. Baekey, why don’t you go back to your housework?’” says Kara Baekey, head of MDA’s Fairfield County chapter. “Little do they know I’m a director of operations for MRM Worldwide in New York City, one of the world’s biggest ad agencies.”
Despite such roadblocks, the group—which counts a number of gun owners in its ranks—is heartened by the passage of Connecticut’s recent gun legislation. Undeterred by the recent Senate defeat of a bill that would expand background checks, MDA has now turned its attention to Congress with a special Mother’s Day initiative: Members are tweeting, emailing, snail-mailing and hand-delivering eight paper flowers (to honor the eight mothers who lose children to gun violence each day in America) and a copy of their Moms Bill of Rights to their Congressional representatives.
Politicians who fail to respond do so at their peril, says Lewis. “It was women who helped decide the presidential election in 2012, she says. “We will make sure our voices are heard in the upcoming 2014 midterms.” Adds Baekey, “For us, it’s no longer a ‘debate’ or a ‘conversation.’ Talking has gotten us nowhere. Every single day, more than 87 people in this country are killed by guns. Enough is enough.”
Following the death of her son in 2002, Henrietta Beckman and a group of other grieving mothers who had recently lost sons or daughters to gun violence met at the Johnson-Stewart Community Center, in Hartford’s troubled North End. “Basically, we wanted to form a group that would give support to families like ours—and would speak justice,” says Beckman. “There are a lot of homicide cases like mine that are still unsolved.”
Ten years on, Mothers United Against Violence (MUAV) still holds meetings the first Monday of every month at Hartford’s Franciscan Center for Urban Ministry. “I see all mothers who lost their child to violence as members, even if they don’t come to meetings,” Beckman says. MUAV also holds public vigils for Hartford’s victims of gun crime. “Families appreciate your coming out and showing support for their loss,” she says, though the events can sometimes open old wounds. “Every time you hear of another shooting, it just does something to you. We’re doing these vigils all the time—there are times when I just can’t go.”
In the last few years, the organization has reached out to do programs at local high schools and elementary schools. “The kids are very receptive,” Beckman says. “They all can relate. The saddest thing is when you go to the elementary schools and ask the kids how many of them have lost someone, and almost half the hands in the auditorium go up.” MUAV works closely with the youth-violence intervention programs Save Our Streets and Hartford Communities that Care. The organization also has a strong relationship with the Hartford Police Department. “Whenever we do vigils we have police protection. And if we have any information on a particular gun-homicide case, we relay it to them—discreetly,” she notes.
MUAV’s most dramatic public action over the last five years has been its annual March, Memorial and Rally, held this year on March 30. Marchers carried crosses for every victim of Hartford gun violence since 2000 (on that day, totaling 360) to the steps of the state capitol. Five hundred participants turned out to hear speeches from U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Gov. Malloy and Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra (who, as a child, lost his father to gun violence). In a show of solidarity, the members of Team 26—Newtown cyclists who earlier in the month had traveled 400 miles by bike to Washington, D.C., to raise support for gun-control legislation—also attended.
In the future, Beckman would like to see more services developed for Hartford children who are orphaned by guns. “In Sandy Hook, they had all these different activities for kids to help them cope,” she says. “Our kids get absolutely nothing. They probably feel like nobody really cares. I’d like to see scholarships for them, too—so they don’t wind up falling through the cracks and choosing violence themselves.”
When Senate Republicans threatened a filibuster of gun-control legislation, members of the Newtown Action Alliance (NAA) responded with “Filibuster the Filibuster: Newtown Deserves a Vote,” a two-day event at Edmond Town Hall at which NAA members read aloud the names of all 3,346 Americans killed by guns since Sandy Hook. “I stood on the town hall stairs in the rain from 9 p.m. until just after 2 p.m. with a handful of others, including a woman who drove up from Brooklyn at midnight,” says Erin Nikitchyuk.
At the end of March, the group organized a protest in front of Newtown’s National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), part of the nationwide “Day to Demand Action” called by Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “Protesting in front of the trade association for the gun industry seemed like a good choice,” Nikitchyuk says. “It happens to be pretty convenient, right in the center of town.” Says NAA co-founder Jennifer Killin, “That action had been on our minds since our group began—and it won’t be the last time we do it, unless the NSSF starts supporting commonsense gun laws.”
One area the NAA is particularly focused on is communication—between legislators and constituents, between parents and children, between advocates for gun legislation and gun owners. “This is not primarily a political issue; it’s about what happened in Newtown and what continues to happen on streets across the country every day,” says Nikitchyuk. “We all need to focus on what we can do in meaningful ways to reduce violence.” Toward that end, the NAA has created NAA Junior, a stand-alone teen group charged with developing their own solutions to gun violence. Last month members of NAA Junior attended PeaceJam New England, a conference at the University of Connecticut featuring 1997 Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams. The topic: True Human Security.
So what can be done to keep kids safe? The NRA insists that the best strategy is to outfit all schools with armed guards. As the parent of a Sandy Hook Elementary School student, Nikitchyuk disagrees. “One of Bear’s teachers told me, ‘We no longer let children out of the classroom without an escort,’” she says. “That kind of makes me sad. Our children need to grow up to be independent; we can’t cocoon them forever—if we do, they aren’t going to grow into the adults they need to be. So I don’t want Bear surrounded by metal detectors and armed guards.”
Nor is she convinced that the presence of such guards is foolproof. “The problem is that there are still guns in the building. And these kids are so stinkin’ cute, they’re distracting. I was picking up Bear from school the other day, and one of the offficers leaned down so a child could whisper in his ear. And I thought, ‘I could just reach right over and grab your gun before you notice.’”
Despite having taken sides on an issue that inflames passions, the NAA prides itself on seeking common ground with opponents. “We’ve tried very hard to encourage conversation with and tolerance of people who approach us spewing pro-gun rhetoric, and a good number have settled down and entered into productive conversations,” Nikitchyuk says. She’s particularly proud of a town hall the alliance organized at Newtown High School with members of the gun-law legislative task force. “Every single person who came to the podium and spoke, regardless of their stand on gun control, was listened to and applauded. The legislators patiently sat on the stage and allowed us to testify all night long. As a mom who has to put her kids’ daily needs first, my voice would have gone unheard without their forbearance.”
The artworks on the walls of the Sandy Hook Promise (SHP) office space come from a group of California school students—countless colorful interpretations of the organization’s logo, which is a Tree of Life largely composed of handprints: helping hands. “It came down to two choices, this and an image with doves,” says Suzy DeYoung, SHP co-founder and outreach director. “We voted as a team—which was a split vote—and then we turned it over to the Sandy Hook families, who chose this image overwhelmingly.”
For SHP, it’s all about the community, but that community isn’t just Newtown. It’s also the 50,000—representing an international following—that have “liked” the organization’s Facebook page, and the 160,000 who have “taken” the Promise on its website. Those who sign up “promise to honor the 26 lives lost at Sandy Hook Elementary School” and “to encourage and support commonsense solutions that make my community and our country safer from similar acts of violence.” Such promises are about more than gun legislation.
“I made it clear at the beginning that if that was all Sandy Hook Promise dealt with, I didn’t want to be involved—I think there’s enough of that already,” DeYoung says. Rather, as a trained parenting coach, her focus has been to foster wellness in her community. She’s reached out to experts and doctors who have worked through other mass tragedies to get their perspective on Newtown. “I’ve been in touch with a doctor who worked with the families affected by the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. One of my plans is to have her visit and bring some of the Oklahoma City families to speak. Sandy Hook parents have said to us, ‘What can we expect in our future?’ and these families can answer that.”
DeYoung has already brought in a panel of Buddhist lamas, one of whom was David Kaczynski (brother of “Unabomber” Ted), the director of a monastery in upstate New York. “That audience was standing-room only,” she says. This month, SHP will host California Rev. Ed Bacon and Elizabeth Lesser, authors well-known for their takes on spirituality and grief. “Their talk will be about finding a light in the darkness.”
SHP Communications Director Nicole Hockley lost her 6-year-old son, Dylan, in the Sandy Hook shootings. She’s been an important point person in President Obama’s campaign to push for stronger gun legislation at the federal level, most recently speaking at his April 8 appearance at the University of Hartford. She’s also a key figure in SHP’s “Innovation Initiative,” launched at a town hall in March in San Francisco.
This initiative “is a partnership with the Silicon Valley community in an attempt to develop safe gun technologies and new ideas in school safety, gun safety and mental health,” Hockley says. The organization has put out a nationwide call for ideas, the best of which will be matched with development teams and financial investors. “We hope to coordinate our efforts with the federal government’s focus on “smart” gun technology, but we don’t want to be limited to that.”
It’s a project that may not bear fruit right away, but that won’t deter the members of SHP. “We see this as a marathon,” says DeYoung. “I hope Sandy Hook Promise is influential in how our town eventually is perceived, as one that made a contribution and wasn’t just victimized.”