The chilling video begins with everyday scenes at a high school. A boy is struggling to make a connection. Meanwhile, in the background, a second student is quietly planning a shooting.
With that video — viewed more than 75 million times since it was posted on social media Dec. 2 — the nonprofit group Sandy Hook Promise is trying to build a movement beyond the high-profile failure to enact federal gun control legislation in the wake of the Newtown school shootings four years ago.
“It’s about influencing attitudes and behaviors,” said Mark Barden, the Newtown father whose young son, Daniel, was one of 20 first-graders murdered on Dec. 14, 2012. “If you do that, the policies will follow.”
With the push to regulate firearms stalled in Congress and the recent victory of NRA-endorsed Republican Donald Trump, passing new federal gun control laws might seem more out of reach than ever. But Barden isn’t dissuaded. As a managing director of Sandy Hook Promise, he is not focused on a single bill but rather on the slow, steady work of shifting public opinion about guns.
Formed in the bleak days immediately after the shootings, Sandy Hook Promise is concentrating its efforts on larger goals than universal background checks or barring those on terrorism watch lists from buying guns. Although it supports both measures, the group has a more ambitious agenda: changing the hearts of Americans, one person at a time. Barden compares the effort to social movements for marriage equality or recycling or ending drunken driving.
The public service announcement aimed at educating viewers about the often hidden warning signs of gun violence is an example of that new approach. The 2-minute, 30-second video, titled “Evan,” has gone viral, raising the group’s profile in the days leading up to Wednesday’s anniversary of the shootings.
Sandy Hook Promise is also celebrating a bipartisan win in Congress with the passage of major mental health legislation that removes barriers for mental health care, expands access to mental health services and requires insurers to cover more mental health services. President Obama signed the bill on Tuesday.
“I’m not sure this bill could have passed without the moral authority of Sandy Hook Promise behind it,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, one of the lead sponsors of the measure.
More Than Gun Control
In the coming months, Sandy Hook Promise will ramp up its efforts even more. The group, which brought in about $4 million in fiscal 2015, intends to expand training programs to help parents, teachers and community leaders identify signs that an individual is at risk of hurting themselves or others.
The group is not shying away from its original aim of strengthening gun control laws, Barden said. “The organization is a national nonprofit dedicated to saving lives and preventing gun violence,” he said. “That mission has remained consistent from the beginning.”
In recent years, several well-funded PACs such as Everytown for Gun Safety, founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Americans for Responsible Solutions, led by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, have given millions to candidates who favor tighter gun control laws. They are also increasingly focusing on state-level legislation, and scored ballot wins in Washington state, Nevada and California during the last election cycle.
Sandy Hook Promise shares the goals of those groups but has a different approach. “We are the only organization in this specific space,” said Barden, who helped found the non-profit along with Nicole Hockley, whose son, Dylan, died in the school shooting, and other Newtown residents.
Murphy, a Democrat who has emerged as one of the Senate’s leading proponents of gun control legislation since the Newtown shootings, said Sandy Hook Promise remains an “indispensable” voice. By broadening the focus to include mental health training and education, the group provides “a really big space for people to land.”
“A lot of people are scared off because gun politics is scary,” Murphy added. “Sandy Hook Promise has never shied away from the aspect of this that has involved gun laws ... but they work on so many different areas. It’s impressive the way they’ve been able to combine direct advocacy with direct programming ... few organizations at their age have done that.”
Instead of tackling gun control as a political problem, Sandy Hook Promise aims to reshape attitudes on the issue, much the way gay rights activists have shifted public opinion on same-sex marriage and Mothers Against Drunk Driving has made it socially unacceptable to drive drunk.
It’s a smart approach, said Maya Beasley, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Putting a face on the tragedy of school shootings makes the cause “more relatable,” she said. “How can you look at those young children and say they don’t deserve to be protected?”
But Beasley said there is a major difference between drunken driving and gun control. “MADD didn’t have a huge powerful lobby fighting against it,” she observed.
Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at SUNY Cortland and the author of five books on gun policy, said the NRA has succeeded in building a grass-roots movement of politically engaged gun owners. Gun safety groups such as Sandy Hook Promise have not had a similar base to tap.
Yet, Spitzer said, “the process is long and it’s incremental but over time, and if they are in this for the long term, demographics are on their side.” He noted that fewer Americans own firearms.
Barden said he remains optimistic, despite Trump’s win. The mental health bill “provided a nice lift ... we’re going into this very difficult time with a little buoyancy.”
Altimari writes for the Hartford Courant.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the amount Sandy Hook Promise raised in fiscal 2015.