Connecticut Moms Mobilize for Gun Violence Prevention in Wake of Shootings
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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.”