Washington — Having brushed aside efforts to strengthen the nation’s gun laws, Congress has turned its attention toward other issues, including immigration reform and alleged abuses by the IRS and National Security Administration.
But for the families affected by the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and their neighbors, there is no moving on.
A group of Newtown families will mark the six-month anniversary of the shooting of 20 first-graders and six educators by taking a school bus to Washington to confront lawmakers who rejected even the most modest of gun-control reforms.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the organization founded and funded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, will pay for the bus.
The Newtown Action Alliance, a nonprofit group created after the tragedy, has organized the two-day trip, which will be Wednesday and Thursday.
Family members will visit lawmakers, take turns reading more than 4,500 names of those killed by gunfire since Dec. 14 and hold press conferences.
But the group is motivated by far more than a wish to lobby for stricter gun control laws, said David Finkelhor, a sociology professor and head of the Crimes Against Children Center at the University of New Hampshire.
“For some people, it works to move and do something else,” Finkelhor said of the families of victims. “For some people it helps to do things that keep alive the memories of their loved ones.”
Po Murray, vice chairman of the Newtown Action Alliance, belongs in the latter category. Although her children were safe when Adam Lanza blasted his way into Sandy Hook Elementary, she feels the pain of the community and says she and others continue to struggle “to find something positive and redeeming about the experience.”
“Many of us are accidental activists now,” she said.
The mother of four children who graduated from Sandy Hook Elementary School, Murray said she believes it’s “kind of rare” for a community like Newtown to have come together in the way it has. Although Congress has remained deaf to the community’s pleas for gun control, lobbying by Newtown families has helped win approval of tough new gun laws in Connecticut and of a state law that keeps photos of the massacred out of the public eye.
“Before the worries were about drinking and driving and maybe checking the kids for ticks,” Murray said. “It’s all different now.”
She was a neighbor of shooter Adam Lanza and his mother, Nancy Lanza.
Although she said her activism is aimed at healing, Murray continues to hope her efforts will also lead to political change.
Although the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate rejected the most basic of reforms — a bill that would expand FBI background checks of gun buyers — Murray refuses to think the issue of gun control is dead in Congress. This week she hopes to talk with members of the GOP-led House, where a majority of members defend gun rights.
Murray has come to Washington five times since the shooting. Some victims’ family members have also become familiar faces in the nation’s capital, including Neil Heslin, father of 6-year-old Jesse; Jackie and Mark Barden, parents of 7-year-old Daniel; and the family members of teacher assistant Vicki Soto.
For David Stowe, who co-founded the Newtown Action Alliance with Murray, this will be a first trip to Washington.
Stowe, who has elementary school-aged children, said he felt horror when he heard there was a shooting at a local school. After determining it was not happening at his kids’ school, Stowe said he felt relief, then guilt.
“I make a commitment to do what I could,” he said.
Although this will be his first lobbying trip to Washington, Stowe said he “worked like 90,000 hours a week” juggling his duties at his Stamford printing and mailing business and planning and working out the logistics for Newtown Action Alliance trips to the capital.
He said he’s both optimistic and patient.
“It’s going to take many years, but it’s moving in the right direction,” Stowe said.
Finklehor of the Crimes Against Children Research Center said Congress’ failure to act six months after Newtown’s tragedy “does not mean failure of the cause.”
Just trying to change public policy, politics or people’s attitudes means a lot, he said.
“For many it’s about finding something positive and redeeming about the experience,” he said. “For many it’s wanting to have served.”
Most Newtown families and friends will return home in time for a day of remembrance on Friday, June 14, the date of the six-month anniversary.
“A lot of people wanted to spend that day in quiet reflection,” Stowe said.
But others will be on a national bus tour sponsored by Mayors Against Gun Violence that will roll out of Newtown Friday to try to persuade senators to take a second look at the background check bill they failed to approve earlier this year.