Sandy Hook's tragic legacy of gun safety takes a new turn 10 years later

In the decades since the shooting, a revived movement aimed at ending gun violence has spread across the country

Dylan Hockley loves purple. He used to come home from school showing off the scraps of paper on which he had drawn big purple dots. He loved looking at the moon and seeing flashes of lightning, though he couldn't stand the sound of thunder. He adores his older brother, Jake, and he loves being held close to his mother – like a koala, he says.

"He was truly the center of our family and just pure, pure love and joy," said Dylan's mother, Nicole Hockley.

Daniel Barden was one of Dylan's first graders, and his family called him "the guardian of all living things". He would pick up any carpenter ants that came into the house and gently lead them outside so they could be with his friends. On the last day of his life, he watched the sun rise over his family's Christmas tree. "I just think it's so beautiful that he thinks that way, that he notices those things and appreciates them," said Daniel's father, Mark Barden. “I went and got my camera and took a picture. So, I have that photo from that Friday morning – December 14, 2012.”

Dylan and Daniel died together that day after a shooter entered their classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Using an AR-15 assault rifle and several other weapons, the assailants killed six adults and 20 children aged six and seven, including Dylan and Daniel. Dylan's first grade teacher, Vicki Soto, and his class assistant, Anne Marie Murphy, were among the educators killed. When police officers entered Sandy Hook Elementary School after the shooting, they found Murphy holding Dylan's body in his arms. Soto was shot several times after throwing himself between the gunman and his students.

"He loved his teacher," said Hockley. "His teacher died with him that day."

Wednesday marked 10 years since the tragedy that devastated Sandy Hook, a village community that is part of the larger city of Newtown, and sent shockwaves around the world. In the decades since, a revived movement aimed at ending gun violence has spread across the country, and Hockley and Barden have dedicated their lives to preventing losses like theirs.

"I will continue to come to terms with the fact that Daniel is gone forever for the rest of my life," Barden said. “I don't think I ever will, nor do I ever have to think about this, or anyone… [That's] why we do the job we do at Sandy Hook Promise.”

Hockley and Barden spoke to the Guardian for a special edition of the Politics Weekly America Podcast, giving an interview in the offices of Sandy Hook Promise, the nonprofit they co-founded after the tragedy. The group has established a violence intervention program that is now used in many school districts across the country to teach children to recognize the potential warning signs that so often precede someone becoming a mass shooter.

Sandy Hook Pledge also advocates for policy changes to reduce gun violence in the US, playing a role in negotiations over the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act last summer. The passing of the bill marks the first time in nearly 30 years the US has enacted such broad gun laws. While not covering all activist demands, the bill expands certain background checks, and increases funding for violence and mental health intervention programs. Joe Biden signed on to the bill just weeks after a tragedy very similar to Sandy Hook that occurred in Uvalde, Texas. A gunman entered Robb's primary school and shot dead 19 children and two educators.

“Every shot brings me back, and probably always will. That day was more painful than most because it was the little kids again,” said Hockley. "Just knowing how this is going to affect so many of those families and communities – it's really hard."

The promise of Sandy Hook and their allies on Capitol Hill then increased their demands for legislation. Biden was urged to "do something" by onlookers when he visited Uvalde, just weeks after a racist massacre at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York.

Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut worked with fellow Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and two Republicans, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas, to draft a compromise bill.

Murphy, who became an outspoken advocate for gun safety after Sandy Hook, heralded the bill's passage as a sign of the movement's strength.

"For most of the decade before Sandy Hook, the gun lobby got whatever they wanted," Murphy told the Guardian. “In the 10 years since Sandy Hook, it has been slow progress on behalf of the gun safety movement, but mostly just a bottleneck… This summer, we demonstrated that we are stronger now.”

But advocates agree more action is needed. In the past month alone, the US has seen deadly attacks at LGBTQ nightclubs in Colorado, at a Walmart in Virginia and at the University of Virginia.

Activists are now strengthening their calls for a ban on assault weapons. Po Murray founded gun safety group Newtown Action Alliance after his neighbor was identified as the Sandy Hook shooter, and he believes a ban on military-style assault rifles is critical.

"We know firsthand what assault weapons can do," said Murray. “Assault guns are designed to kill as many people [as possible] in a short amount of time.”

Although such a bill passed the House earlier this year, it has stalled in the Senate. With Republicans taking control of the House in January, it may be very difficult to move that policy forward.

Despite the many obstacles he encounters in his advocacy work, Murray takes heart in the work being done by the youngest members of the gun safety movement.

The 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, mobilized a new generation of activists to fight gun violence, which resulted in the formation of the group March for Our Lives. Last month, March for Our Lives member Maxwell Frost became the first member of Generation Z to be elected to Congress.

"These young people want to see significant change," said Murray. "They don't regret what they want, and they will get it because they will rule this matter." Some of that organizing took place within the youth wing of Murray's group, the Junior Newtown Action Alliance. One Saturday, JNAA members helped organize a gun buyback event at the Newtown police department, where attendees had the opportunity to pick up a free gun safe and surrender firearms in exchange for gift cards.

Geneva Pier, 16, said he joined the group because he wanted to help bring about change that felt too late.

"After seeing what mass shootings have done to communities and lost friends, it's really hard to see that nothing really happened, and you still see these shootings all over the country," Wharf said.

Michayl Wilford, a 13-year-old JNAA member, expressed similar disappointment about how much reform was still needed 10 years after Sandy Hook. Wilford's brother survived the shooting.

“Every year when the time comes, it hits you again,” said Wilford. "He's just thinking about what went wrong [for him] that day and how it could still be today because nothing has changed."

For Barden and Hockley, the memories of Daniel and Dylan are never far away. As the two parents travel across the country advocating for reform, they remind policy makers how much they lost 10 years ago.

"When we're going to visit legislators, whether here in Connecticut or in another state or in Washington, I want them to see Daniel's face," Barden said. “I want them to know what is at stake. I want them to know, it's not just numbers, statistics and metrics. These are real people.”

Memories of Daniel and Dylan have also moved others to action. Following the 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Murphy held a 15-hour filibuster on the Senate floor to demand gun safety action. During closing remarks, Murphy held up a large photo of Dylan, smiling for the camera and wearing a Superman t-shirt. The image became a symbol of the need to change US gun laws.

“When people see that photo, how can you not see such a beautiful person that was taken from us for all the wrong reasons?” said Hockley.

When Hockley looked at the photo, he saw his beautiful child who never had the chance to grow up, and he remembered everything he had to fight for.

“He is my hero. He is my superhero. And that is why it is my mission in life to honor him,” he said. “Respect my child who was killed, respect my child who survived and find a way forward so children can continue to have happy pictures that."

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