In Newtown, Making Promises To Transform A Tragedy After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a group of victim families and others in the community joined together to try to prevent gun violence, and they asked the rest of the world to promise to help. A year after the tragedy, members of Sandy Hook Promise say their efforts to change society are just beginning.

In Newtown, Making Promises To Transform A Tragedy

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.


RATH: Twenty-six bells tolled in Newtown, Conn., this morning, one for every life lost in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School one year ago today. Since that awful day, some in the community have been working to turn that tragedy into a moment of transition.

Craig LeMoult, of member station WSHU, reports the group Sandy Hook Promise is both a support group for families and an advocate for ending gun violence.

CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: Nicole Hockley says she used to be the kind of person who knew where she was going in life. Then on Dec. 14th last year, her 6-year-old son, Dylan, was one of the 26 Sandy Hook victims.

NICOLE HOCKLEY: Every plan that I had went out the window and, you know, I just kind of lost my way in terms of, where do you go from here? How do you pick yourself up and move forward, and find a new path?

LEMOULT: The phone kept ringing at home, and media outlets sent flowers with cards asking for interviews.

HOCKLEY: In those early days and weeks, everyone wanted a piece of us, like they wanted a piece of a lot of the families; and it was hard to know who to trust.

LEMOULT: A friend told her about some people from the community who wanted to help. Rob Cox was one of the group, which later became known as Sandy Hook Promise.

ROB COX: About eight of the 17 co-founders from that first couple of weeks in January last year were folks who play Frisbee together.


LEMOULT: This Ultimate Frisbee game has been happening Tuesday nights in Newtown for years. Fourteen men, mostly in their 40s and 50s, sprint up and down an indoor field in Newtown, trying to get a Frisbee across the end zone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's go. Whoever wins - gets this point, wins the game.

LEMOULT: None of the Frisbee players were parents of victims, but several of them had kids in the school at the time. And it's a small town. It was close to everyone.

COX: The day after, that Saturday morning, a whole group of us - families, friends, dogs, everyone - we went for a hike and just, you know, we cried, we hugged each other, and we tried to answer the unanswerable.

LEMOULT: People said they felt like they needed to do something. As they started meeting, figuring out what to do was the challenge.

COX: Some people wanted like, a local munitions ordinance; I mean, it was all over the place. But what it was actually quite apparent, particularly when you look in hindsight on this, is just that everybody was kind of right, in a way. There is no one solution.

LEMOULT: And that became the idea behind Sandy Hook Promise. The goal wasn't to focus on a single answer, but to approach the issues surrounding what happened more broadly. Nicole Hockley says gun violence is a public safety issue.

HOCKLEY: Thirty-two thousand deaths a year; 500,000 acts of violence that include a gun. That's unacceptable. And when you have that level of death or injury from any other area of life, you do something about it.

LEMOULT: Hockley is now Sandy Hook Promise's paid communications director. After the new year, as part of a campaign they're calling Parent Together, they plan to launch online tools to address some of the mental health issues believed to be related to what happened in Sandy Hook - like reaching out to isolated kids, and working with children with emotional detachments. One program will work on getting pediatricians to focus on children's mental wellness. Sandy Hook Promise raised about $3 million from donors this year, to fund their operations.

Each victim family is dealing with what happened in their own way. Some have worked behind the scenes with Sandy Hook Promise. About seven families are publicly involved. Mark Barden lost his son Daniel and also now works for the group.

MARK BARDEN: You know, we're in the middle of the most profoundly deep sorrow we've ever known. And so this is hard work anyway. But to do it under those circumstances is just - it's exponentially harder.

LEMOULT: And yet, he says, he feels driven to do it. He says Sandy Hook Promise is not an anti-gun group.

BARDEN: We like to think of it as gun responsibility, gun safety, because most gun owners are responsible gun owners.

LEMOULT: Barden says they can get more done if gun owners are part of the conversation. For Hockley, fostering that kind of conversation has been therapeutic.

HOCKLEY: Every once in a while, I say, why on earth am I doing this? I could just be home. But then, what would I be doing at home? This is my way of honoring Dylan and in some respects, keeping him alive.

LEMOULT: Barden says because their goal is long term and not really about passing laws, the last year wasn't as disappointing for them as it's been for other groups with specific legislative agendas. He says despite all their work, he knows they'll never stop all gun violence in the country.

BARDEN: You know, but if you look at campaigns like designated driver or some of the smoking campaigns that reduced those numbers by 80 percent, you know, over a 10-year period or a 20-year period - if we could achieve something like that, I would say we're really - you know, that would be success, to me.

LEMOULT: It's a success, he says, that has to happen, to keep more families from experiencing the pain that he and his family have had to endure for the last year.

For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult in Connecticut.

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