Newtown group seeks solutions to gun violence

Jimmy Greene and wife Nelba Marquez-Greene with a portrait of their daughter, Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim Ana Marquez-Greene.
(Jessica Hill, Associated Press)

NEWTOWN, Conn. — Hours after a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Lee Shull sent an email to friends and neighbors in Newtown and urged them to join him in doing something to prevent another mass shooting.

“I knew we had to act.... We needed to do something,” said Shull, whose two children attended Sandy Hook, where a killer with an assault weapon opened fire on the morning of Dec. 14. But the answer to exactly what that “something” should be remains elusive even in this town hit so hard by gun violence, as was evident Monday when the group that Shull helped create formally announced itself without taking a stand on new gun laws.

The nonprofit group, Sandy Hook Promise, is vowing to honor victims of the school massacre by looking for “common sense” solutions to prevent future mass killings and to ensure that Newtown is known as a catalyst for change rather than a site of horror.

Who they were: Connecticut school shooting victims

“We ... have an opportunity and responsibility to not let this tragedy stand as just another chapter in our country’s history,” Shull wrote as he sat at his computer at 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 15.

The group’s name draws from a promise that supporters are asked to make to “turn the conversation into actions,” among other things, and to be open to all points of view.

“Doing nothing is no longer an option,” said Tom Bittman, a co-founder of the group.

“We have let this happen too many times,” he said, a reference to mass shootings in schools, shopping malls, places of worship, and at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.

At a media event held at Newtown’s Edmond Town Hall one month after the massacre, Bittman and other Sandy Hook Promise members conceded that the group would eventually take positions on issues as the national debate on gun violence heats up.

That could come soon as state, local and national leaders press for restrictions that pro-gun groups such as the National Rifle Assn. oppose.

President Obama will unveil proposals this week for possible legislation after being presented with “common sense steps” compiled by Vice President Joe Biden and several Cabinet secretaries. Obama has endorsed tougher background checks on gun buyers, limiting access to high-capacity magazines such as those carried by the Sandy Hook killer, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, and “an assault weapons ban that is meaningful.”

Bittman described the country as “stuck in a rut” in the way it has dealt with gun issues, with people talking over one another instead of debating solutions. “There are steps government can take. There are laws Congress can pass,” he said, coming closer than anyone at the formal unveiling to calling for legal action.

Not even parents of Sandy Hook victims who appeared Monday were ready to go beyond calling for change without specifics, though their words and their willingness to publicly join the group suggested that when the time comes, they will lean toward supporting new laws.

“Simply pause for a moment and think. Ask yourself: What is it worth doing to keep your children safe?” David Wheeler said as he and his wife, Francine, stood on stage, clutching a photograph of their slain little boy, Benjamin. “What is it worth doing?”

“I do not want to be someone sharing my experience and consoling another parent next time,” said Nicole Hockley, the mother of 6-year-old victim Dylan Hockley, in conceding that “true transformation” is needed. But Hockley added: “I don’t know yet what those changes are.... I come with no pre-conceived agenda.”

As they spoke, many of the other parents on stage fought back tears.

Not everyone involved in Sandy Hook Promise, or touched by gun violence, is as reluctant to call for specifics. Phil Keane of Newtown, who has attended Sandy Hook Promise meetings, said he supported a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. “It just seems so obvious,” said Keane, adding that some people at the first Sandy Hook Promise gathering spoke up in favor of tough new laws.

That meeting was held Dec. 17 in the town library, drawing about 35 people, and several more meetings have been held. “There are people who are pro-gun, people who are not, and many shades of gray in between,” Keane said.

Sandy Phillips, whose 24-year-old daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was one of 12 people shot to death in the Aurora movie theater in July, was among those invited to the Sandy Hook Promise event.

“I think we’re finally at the place in the country where the American people have finally stood up and said enough,” said Phillips, a hunter and gun owner who sympathizes with people who don’t want their right to bear arms repealed. But Phillips favors a ban on high-capacity magazines and questions why anyone needs an assault rifle to hunt. She said she would like to see Sandy Hook Promise “further down the path” toward taking a stand on gun legislation.

“But they’re still in shock,” she said of Newtown residents, whose town bears shreds of the massive memorials that piled up after the shooting.

The piles of teddy bears, candles, cards and toys have been removed from sidewalks and busy corners, but the road leading to Sandy Hook Elementary remains closed as police continue to investigate.

And 26 small Christmas trees still stand outside a local deli, one to honor each victim at the school.

PHOTOS: Massacre at elementary school