The Movement That Sandy Hook Built

Gun Rights

“It’s a shitty time of year.”

It’s a Friday in early December, and I ask Nelba Márquez-Greene how she’s doing. In roughly two weeks, it will be 10 years since her daughter, Ana, was killed at the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. She’s fending off interview requests from news producers casually asking if she’s available to tell their audience “a little about what that day … felt like.” She’s reeling from a cable news chyron that described a recent trip survivors of the 2021 high school shooting in Oxford, Michigan, took to Uvalde, Texas: “Instead of grief, we saw joy,” the screen declared, as if any such sojourn could be captured so simplistically. She’s keeping tabs on the latest unspeakable mass shooting — six dead at a Virginia Walmart — and hoping that the victims’ families don’t face demands that they release photos of their bullet-torn loved ones. That’s a request Márquez-Greene has faced countless times — both from people who deny that the shooting took place, and from gun-reform advocates who believe that the graphic photos will fibrillate the nation into action.

“That is a specific ask with children because we believe that level of horror and gore might do something,” she says.

Márquez-Greene knows tragic cause does not invariably lead to triumphant effect. The death of her daughter and 19 other first graders at Sandy Hook was supposed to be a “political epiphany,” explains Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who represented Newtown in Congress at the time of the massacre. But “that’s not how politics works.” It’s not how it worked after nine Black worshippers were shot in their church basement in Charleston in 2015. It’s not how it worked after 61 concertgoers lost their lives at a Las Vegas music festival in 2017. It’s not how it worked after a classmate killed 18 students and staff at a high school in Parkland, Florida the following year. The only time it may have worked was after Uvalde, when Congress passed its gun law in nearly three decades. 

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Some of the parents in Uvalde made the choice to publicize the horrific images of their murdered children. Kimberly Rubio, who lost her daughter Lexi in the shooting, testified before Congress three days before her daughter’s funeral to demand an assault weapons ban; she pled with lawmakers as she explained that “a mom is hearing our testimony and thinking to herself, ‘I can’t even imagine their pain,’ not knowing that our reality will one day be hers.” Congress was moved to act — though the resulting Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which passed in June, merely tinkered at the fringes of what the vast majority of Americans think lawmakers should do to end such tragedies. The White House celebrated its passage; Manuel Oliver, the father of a student killed at Parkland, spoke for many in the movement when he interrupted the fete, shouting at President Joe Biden from his Rose Garden folding chair:  “You have to do more!”

This is the moment, in a nutshell. A decade after Sandy Hook, the gun violence-prevention movement has never been bigger, better funded, or more influential on Capitol Hill. The National Rifle Association, the one-time behemoth of gun rights, is hemorrhaging money and sway. Some 90% of Americans support universal background checks. More than 500 bills aimed at curbing gun violence have been passed at the local, state, and federal levels — not to mention the hundreds of gun rights bills that have been defeated. More Republican senators voted for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act than they did for any other Biden priority.

And yet, Americans have never owned more guns, and gun deaths are higher than they’ve been in nearly a half century. For the nearly two dozen survivors, activists, and elected officials Rolling Stone spoke with, it’s been a complicated, difficult decade. “We’re in a race,” Murphy says. “The anti-gun violence movement is winning at an increasing rate — the number of guns that are flooding into our communities, it’s unfortunately outpacing our ability to pass laws.”

That a breakthrough came in 2022, advocates say, is a result of their groundwork, encapsulated in an anecdote Murphy conveyed to an audience at the Center for American Progress last Wednesday. When his two lead Republican negotiators on the legislation went to share progress with their GOP colleagues, they were met with resistance — but not the sort of resistance Murphy had anticipated. “One senator stands up and says, ‘Why are you going to force us to vote on this?’” Murphy recalled. “’If I vote for this, I’m going to give all sorts of trouble. But if I vote against this bill, I don’t know that I can get reelected.’” Murphy paused and smiled. “That’s a phrase that would have never been uttered five or ten years ago.”

To advocate for stricter gun laws before Sandy Hook was to “feel like you were yelling into empty halls,” says Christian Heyne, the vice president of policy at Brady. Congress was full of politicians from both parties with “A” ratings from the NRA, and when tragedy struck, they offered only their “thoughts and prayers.” Case in point: Twelve people had been murdered at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado — five months before the Sandy Hook tragedy — and “it was brushed under the rug,” recalls Sandy Phillips, whose daughter Jessi died in the massacre. 

Sandy Hook had all the makings of a tipping point. After two decades of avoiding the gun issue, Democrats sprang into action. President Barack Obama deputized then-Vice President Joe Biden to lead the White House’s response. He convened a group of experts to put together a bill to expand background checks, seen as a measure most likely to pass chambers beholden to the NRA’s influence. The legislation was even written with the NRA’s input, which included industry sweeteners that would have weakened some existing gun laws. 

Which made the legislation’s defeat all the more demoralizing — especially to devastated Sandy Hook parents who’d brought their grief to Washington. “There were times that we were walking into the room directly after NRA lobbyists, or they were walking into the room directly after us,” says Nicole Hockley, who lost her son Dylan in the shooting. She was shocked that she, a political novice, knew the bill’s contents better than the lawmakers with whom she met. “They were intentionally misinformed by NRA lobbyists,” she recalls. In some respects, that was easier to stomach than the senators “who would cry in front of us,” she says — those “who would say that they knew this would help save lives, but because of politics, they couldn’t support it.” That was an “inflection point,” says Mark Barden, whose son Daniel died in the tragedy. “We learned in that experience just how slowly and clunky and cumbersome and fraught with influence the political mechanism in Washington is.”

Barden and Hockley retreated from politics as their primary pursuit. Sandy Hook Promise, the nonprofit they founded, pivoted its attention from passing stricter gun laws to training young people how to recognize the signs of someone who might be a risk to themselves and others. Other gun reform-minded activists set out to change the politics of the issue. Moms Demand Action, the grassroots group founded by Shannon Watts, turned its attention to city councils and statehouses, passing model legislation across the country to prove the issue wasn’t politically toxic. Groups like Giffords, founded by former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords, and Everytown for Gun Safety, founded by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, dumped millions of dollars into federal races, aided along the way by more tragedies that sent once-purple, vote-rich suburbs into solidly blue territory.

As the tragedies stacked up, so did money and volunteers, but none of it translated into congressional action. “You didn’t have the requisite political majorities,” explains Peter Ambler, the executive director of Giffords. Jaclyn Corin, a survivor of the 2018 high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, saw something else. “The fact that nothing substantial was done after Sandy Hook created this normality of accepting inaction,” Corin says.

On the Sandy Hook families’ first trip to Washington, Márquez-Greene recalls stepping off Air Force One and meeting with William Modzeleski, an Education Department official who had worked on school safety issues since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. White haired with a neat beard, Marquez-Greene recalls him looking wise. So she trusted him when he didn’t pull any punches: The families would be looking at a minimum of 15 to 25 years before they saw anything of significant change. “We’re enamored with this concept that if we do this one thing, then people will be moved to action,” Márquez-Greene says. “And really, if you look at any social movement, what history teaches us is it’s not one action — it’s everybody moving in lockstep together.”

But “moving in lockstep” didn’t happen right after Sandy Hook. Largely absent from policy conversations was how to address the everyday gun violence that had ravaged Black and Brown communities for decades. “You have to be the perfect victim for people to care,” Márquez-Greene says. “What elevated Newtown? They were the perfect victims. They were children and teachers in a quaint white town in Connecticut.” Márquez-Greene, whose daughter had been a child of color to die in the tragedy, remembers trying to advocate for other mothers of color who had lost their children in more quotidian, but no less devastating, shootings. “‘That is different from Newtown,’” she recalls being told by one gun violence prevention group when she mentioned those mothers. “‘If we do that, we’re going to lose focus on the message.’” 

Critical to staving off everyday bloodshed was community-based violence intervention programs, which build relationships to disrupt patterns that lead to violence. Local leaders like Chico Tillmon, a veteran of such programs from Chicago, had been successfully deploying these efforts for decades, but with little recognition from the mainstream movement. Tillmon credits the Parkland survivors for using their platform to elevate the solutions that existed and the leaders who did that work. “They were the first group to recognize that what they experienced as an isolated event was happening consistently in Black and Brown communities,” Tillmon says. “Now everybody is saying gun violence is an epidemic.”

Congress’ 2022 legislation has $15 billion in funding that can be used, in part, on programs like Tillmon’s — though it almost didn’t make it into the bill. “I kind of assumed that this was more political, that Republicans’ feelings on this were more hardened — not true,” Murphy told the Center for American Progress crowd. “They just didn’t know the lives that were being saved and changed by this funding.”

The movement is also reckoning with whether the NRA has truly been vanquished. The organization filed for bankruptcy in 2021 and has lost much of the cache it once enjoyed on Capitol Hill. But the sentiments it espoused have lingered among the GOP. “We had this idea that we would shine a light on the misdeeds of the NRA and once that happened, they would lose,” Watts of Moms Demand Action explains. Instead, “their agenda has been usurped by the right wing and it’s used now as an organizing principle to get new people in the door, to get them interested in other issues that don’t have anything to do with guns — abortion and CRT and anti-trans rights.” 

The NRA wasn’t at the table as the 2022 legislation came together — but the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents the interests of gun sellers and manufacturers, was. The influence of those groups is still visible at the state level, where 25 GOP-controlled states have passed bills to allow for concealed carry of firearms without a permit.

These developments have left some activists questioning whether the movement has been too delicate in how it’s framed gun ownership. There are 400 million firearms dispensed across America — a 100 million increase from 2018 alone. The upward trend began in the early 2000s, when gun rights advocates succeeded in convincing the public that firearms made them safer. Sales spiked during Covid and after the murder of George Floyd. “Our messaging strategy has really focused on keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people, which overlooks the fact that guns are dangerous, period,” says Nina Vinik, the founder of Project Unloaded, a youth-focused gun violence prevention organization that focuses on culture change. “The desire to build bridges with gun owners has made some organizations more reluctant to acknowledge that guns don’t make use safer.”

What does a parent like Barden make of the moment? “I see this as a trend in the right direction, and it’s being driven by several factors, some good, some not so good.” Sandy Hook was “a big bang and all those parts are still in motion,” he observes, noting how much political and social progress has been made. But so much of that momentum is “driven by tragedy,” he observes. “We see these horrific high-profile events unfolding frequently, and that is just driving people to examine this and to become involved.”

Among those becoming involved: Countless survivors of gun violence, more than ever before. “I don’t think there’s a more important voice in the fight to end gun violence than those who have been impacted,” Brady’s Heyne says. For too long, Heyne explains, the NRA had owned the moral high ground by talking about patriotism and personal freedoms. “It takes those who were impacted by gun violence to make real what has seemed unfathomable,” he says. “We’re not going to be able to move the needle if we can’t connect with people on an emotional level.”

Many of those survivors descended upon Washington last at an annual summit, hosted by the Center for American Progress. It’s not a gathering open to the public, or even the press, but rather an opportunity for those in the movement to come together and advance their cause through sessions on storytelling, media skills, and getting funding for their work. On Wednesday morning, fifty survivors packed into a small conference room to for a conversation about “trauma-informed advocacy” — how to keep telling their survivor stories, reliving their trauma, for the sake of their work.

The front of the room was lined with panelists who had become advocates in the face of tragedy. Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, who lost their daughter in the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting, talked about the mindfulness practice they do. Delphine Williams, who lost two of her children to stray bullets on two separate occasions, shared how she stays sane spending time with her deceased son’s surviving dog. Patricia Oliver, who lost her son Joaquin in Parkland, talked about the ripples of trauma she’s endured — first, at the loss of her son, and again at the trial of his killer earlier that summer. Kimberly Rubio, the mother who had testified before Congress after she lost her fourth grader in Uvalde, silently teared up as she said she was eager to learn as much as contribute to the discussion.

They, like their audience of fellow grievers, wore pins with the names of their lost loved ones. Heyne, who lost his mother in a 2005 shooting, moderated the conversation, holding space for tears and frustration. “When you’re hit with bureaucratic red tape and legislative progress — that’s a very common problem for many people who get involved in this work,” Heyne told me afterward. “You’re so vulnerable to share how traumatic this is. When it falls on deaf ears or a process that takes time, it can be a really hard story.”

Hockley of Sandy Hook Promise describes the hardship of a decade in that fight. “It’s so personal, and I’m so aware of the continued violence that’s going on out there,” she explains. “I’m like, ‘We just need to move faster, harder, be more effective.’” And yet, she and Barden have made a difference — their data show they’ve stopped 11 school shootings, as well as hundreds of suicides. “Our team has to remind Mark and I to take time to celebrate the successes along the way,” she says.

As the anniversary approaches, Barden is holding space for both what the tragedy of Sandy Hook represents and his deeply personal grief. “For me, it’s almost two different things,” he explains. “Our seven-year-old son, Daniel, was a victim and part of this catastrophe. And then, separately, I have to reckon with the fact that Daniel is gone forever,” he says.

“Those are kind of two different things that I have to process in different ways,” he adds. “At the end of it all, I just miss him desperately.”

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To be the surviving family of a loved one lost to gun violence is to know loneliness, something Márquez-Greene understands. “Who will stay with you when the cameras go away? Who will stay with you when you’re no longer hot — when you’re no longer the ‘it’ tragedy site?” she says. “It’s gross, this even coming out of my mouth. But it is real.” She pauses. “I want people to know how healing and special it is when 10 years later, someone says ‘I know how much you must miss your daughter.’”

As she reflects on her own work to honor her daughter’s memory, she takes faith in scripture: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. And for us, that’s what we are determined to do.” She will try to hold all the parts of her: A mother to Ana and her surviving son, Isaiah; wife to her husband, Jimmy, a therapist; a lover of flowers and birds and baking. And she will go quiet in the coming days as she remembers and misses her daughter. 

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