Sandy Hook Parent Transformed Into Activist After Shooting

In December, six-year-old Benjamin Wheeler was among those killed in the attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School. Since then, his father, David Wheeler has met with officials in Washington, D.C., urging tighter controls to rein in gun violence. He speaks with Melissa Block about his views on the legislative process and what his path forward is from here.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

As senators hear from voters back home, the families of Newtown, Connecticut, are figuring out where they go from here as they push for change. Earlier today, I spoke with David Wheeler, who's working in partnership with the advocacy group Sandy Hook Promise. One of his two sons, 6-year-old Ben, was among the 20 children and six adults who were shot and killed at the school on December 14th. David Wheeler describes Ben as an irrepressible spirit, a boy in motion who loved music.

DAVID WHEELER: We had recently learned that he - that Ben had perfect pitch. He could hear a tone and tell you what note it was.

BLOCK: Wow.

WHEELER: So that's something we'd learned about him recently. Just a couple of weeks before the 14th, he had played in his...

BLOCK: I'm sorry.

WHEELER: Just a couple of weeks before, he'd played in his piano recital, and he did a sort of a one-finger version of "Loch Lomond." He had sort of figured it out on his own. And I think we've probably heard "Loch Lomond" about 600 times...

(LAUGHTER)

WHEELER: ...in the house over the course of that couple of months when he decided that that was the song he wanted to do.

BLOCK: You know, I've read, Mr. Wheeler, that your family moved from New York City to Newtown because you wanted someplace quiet. You wanted a piece of lawn. And now, I'm just thinking about the transformation that you've gone through from parents to this role as advocates and activists, and I wonder how you approach that and how you think about sustaining that.

WHEELER: Well, the approach is really quite simple. You know, I have to get up in the morning. I have to look at myself in the mirror. And I look in the mirror and I see the father of two boys. So if there is any way that I can help to keep another father from having to go through this, I certainly will.

BLOCK: And when you think about how to do that - I was looking at the website of the group Sandy Hook Promise, and the promise is this time there will be change. And, of course, we've all seen the Senate's failure to get background check legislation through, along with the assault weapons ban and the ban on high-capacity magazines. So what do you think happens to that promise that this time there will be change?

WHEELER: Well, now, we take a look at the whole picture and focus our energies on the other elements of the situation that obviously require fixing.

BLOCK: And what would those be?

WHEELER: Well, people are working on the school safety issue. Many school experts have come to the conclusion that the one thing you can do to make a school safe in terms of the communication between students and staff is to create an environment where students feel safe talking to grownups.

BLOCK: In other words, to report a threat or a perceived threat?

WHEELER: Yeah. Sure. Just to bring up anything they see as - that student may see as an anomaly or something odd or something strange, something that worries them, something that scares them, something they think is just odd. There are people working on the brain health aspect of this to answer the why of this. And that's a big question. That's a really big question. You know, why did this happen? Why do people do these things? There's not been enough research. There hasn't been enough hard, solid research and data produced to find out exactly in a brain chemistry way or in a behavioral way to link behavioral research to the real science, the brain science.

There are technology initiatives that are taking place which I think hold a tremendous amount of promise. I'm very optimistic about how advancing technology may help us solve a big part of this problem.

BLOCK: Are you talking about something that I saw on the Sandy Hook Promise website, which is soliciting venture capital and angel investors to work on innovations in gun safety technology in particular?

WHEELER: Yes, yes. When there were unacceptable levels of fatalities on our highways, technology solved that problem, largely. And I think that can work here. More importantly, the people who know think it can work and the people who understand the technology think it can work.

BLOCK: Mr. Wheeler, the NRA is about to hold its annual meeting. And I wonder if there is any common ground that you see between what the NRA and other gun rights groups favor and the things that you would support.

WHEELER: Yes, of course, of course. The school safety issue, for example, you know, having personnel that are trained in a very, very specific way. You know, having people like that on a campus or in a school building, I think that's an area of common ground.

I think we need to revisit the intersection of the arena of mental health and firearms ownership. That's a very thorny issue, that's a very difficult issue because the privacy laws and the HIPAA laws are in place for a very good reason. And we need to proceed extremely carefully and with great caution as we approach the existing statutes in states that protect and seek to alleviate any stigma to people with a diagnosis.

BLOCK: When you mentioned specially trained personnel in schools, would you support armed guards in schools? Is that something that you think is a good idea?

WHEELER: I think having trained personnel in the school that have a sidearm, that have a weapon is - I don't think there's anything wrong with that. The danger comes in irrational suggestions along those lines. The idea of arming staff and teachers is laughable. That has no bearing in the real world that I can see.

BLOCK: Hmm. You know, we heard in Don Gonyea's piece the daughter of the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School basically bird-dogging the New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, trying to hold her accountable for her no vote on the background checks and other issues. Do you think actions like that are effective? Do those have a place?

WHEELER: Obviously, the most important thing for Kelly Ayotte is how her constituents feel. If her constituents feel a certain way and they decide to let her know about that, she's going to have to adjust her stance and her vote and her approach to this issue to accommodate her constituents. They are the ones, after all, for whom she works.

BLOCK: Is that the kind of thing that you can see yourself doing?

WHEELER: I think it's important to recognize that that is a necessary part of this process for some. Personally, speaking only for myself, I don't think raised voices accomplish much. But if what Principal Hochsprung's daughter did that day made Kelly Ayotte reflect on her vote or think about things for one extra moment - she's a mother after all. She has children. She has young children. And if such a thing made her reconsider even briefly, I applaud that.

BLOCK: Well, David Wheeler, I appreciate you talking with us today. Thanks so much.

WHEELER: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's David Wheeler, the father of 6-year-old Ben Wheeler, who was shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December.

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