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Where tragedy turned to transformation: Newtown families make promise for change

December 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
One year after the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Ct., parents of the young victims are struggling to make sense from a senseless act of violence. Hari Sreenivasan talks to two families who lost children in the shooting about their advocacy to prevent more tragic murders with the Sandy Hook Promise.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, we mark the one-year anniversary of the Newtown massacre. An afternoon vigil held at the Washington National Cathedral today commemorated not just those killed in the Connecticut shootings, but also other gun-related homicides throughout the year.

It included a performance by singer Carole King, a candle-lighting ceremony, and remarks by family members.

That included Gilles Rousseau, the father of Lauren Rousseau, a teacher killed at the elementary school one year ago.

GILLES ROUSSEAU, father of Newtown victim: We are here today with the common goal of remembering our loved ones, and seeking to make our world a safer place. Acts of kindness and efforts to promote just cause are the best way to keep the memory of the victim of gun violence alive.

GWEN IFILL: And that brings us to our report from Newtown, where families have been struggling to deal with their losses and the issue of gun violence.

Residents asked members of the news media to stay away on the actual anniversary, but two families agreed to sit down with Hari Sreenivasan last month.

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Here’s Hari’s story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Twenty first-graders gunned down in their classrooms, six adults killed trying to protect them.

One year after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, parents struggle to make sense from a senseless act of violence.

For Nicole Hockley, the mother of 6-year-old Dylan, who was killed that day, the grief of the past 12 months has been unimaginable.

NICOLE HOCKLEY, mother of Newtown victim: This has been the most awful, the most surreal year of my life.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, as you approach this dark anniversary, what’s — what’s going through your mind?

NICOLE HOCKLEY: The one-year mark, the six-year mark, it doesn’t change anything. It’s a passage of time, but at a time and place where time doesn’t really have much meaning for me, because it’s just one more day that Dylan’s not in my arms. And that’s not going to change.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But what Hockley is hoping to change is the likelihood that a horrific scene like the one that played out at Sandy Hook one year ago will never happen again.

NICOLE HOCKLEY: Being in this situation, I have to make something good come from it. So, this year is all about — has been very much about learning things that I never thought I would have to learn about.

It’s been about tackling problems and grief from a perspective that I never thought that I would ever experience. It’s been a time of sorrow, but also of growth, and just trying to find my way for myself and my family to reinvest ourselves in this new life and find a way forward and through it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It is a journey that has led Nicole Hockley into a year of advocacy. To find solutions to the kind of violence that took her youngest son, Hockley and other grieving families formed the Sandy Hook Promise.

NICOLE HOCKLEY: It is a sad honor to be here today.

It’s been one month since I lost my son Dylan and 25 other families lost their loved ones. At times, it feels like only yesterday, and at other times, it feels as if many years have passed.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Almost immediately, the parents were swept up in a national debate around gun policy.

NICOLE HOCKLEY: Before last month, I had never made a case to a legislator. We approached the Connecticut legislature with love and logic, and they listened. They responded with respect and the strongest gun responsibility legislation in the nation.


NICOLE HOCKLEY: My way of grieving is to be active and to ensure that this isn’t just a senseless tragedy. This is my way of honoring Dylan and the others that died and providing him a legacy. I’m never going to know what sort of adult he could have been, because he was 6.

But if I can help him be associated with a positive change that saves the lives of others, then that’s a meaningful legacy to have, and that’s what I’m committed to delivering.

MARK BARDEN, father of Newtown victim: We’re still trying to this. Did it really happen?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Working side by side with Hockley to help deliver that change are Newtown parents Jackie and Mark Barden. The Bardens lost their youngest son, Daniel, at Sandy Hook Elementary.

A comment from their oldest son set them on their course.

MARK BARDEN: It was our 13 year old son, James. And he said, “I would like to see no other family ever have to go through this again.”

And we thought, if we had the opportunity to have some influence in that, then we sure would. We have said from beginning with Sandy Hook Promise we want to be known as the town where tragedy turned to transformation. We’d like this to be the place where positive change, positive, meaningful, lasting change started.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Since young James’ early comment, the couple has included their children, even taking them to the White House for spring break.

Your kids seem very close, too.

JACKIE BARDEN, mother of Newtown victim: Yes, they’re very close.

MARK BARDEN: They were very close. They used to all sleep in the same bed, if they could.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, do you go through phases where you are seeking out photographs, and other phases where it’s too difficult to look at them?

MARK BARDEN: You know, you do want to connect with him and look at photos, but you can’t for too long. It’s like, it’s too much. I guess maybe some day we will.

JACKIE BARDEN: Some days, it’s better than others.

MARK BARDEN: But even then, sometimes, I could just…

JACKIE BARDEN: See all of his little freckles?

MARK BARDEN: Yes. Yes. It makes me think of when I used to check his little teeth after he had brushed them. And I would check them. And then I would kiss his little mouth, and he would still have the minty — all the toothpaste. I loved that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Bardens found themselves in the middle of a heated national debate around guns that culminated last spring when federal legislation to expand background checks for gun owners failed. The defeat was widely seen as stalling momentum gained by gun control advocates.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington, but this effort is not over.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Were you disappointed when federal legislation didn’t go through?

MARK BARDEN: Yes, we were disappointed. But what we’re setting out to do is bigger than just that. We’re looking to reset the conversation. We’re looking to make people think about this differently.

HARI SREENIVASAN: To reset the conversation, the Sandy Hook Promise team emphasizes that this is not a discussion about gun control; it’s about ways to prevent gun violence.

MARK BARDEN: Hari, I think the traditional approach has been top-down. Go yell and scream at your legislator and get them to vote the way you want them to vote, and — and implement laws that will force everybody to abide by that. I think that’s maybe not working.

ALYSSA MILANO, actress: A year ago, in the wake of unthinkable violence against our children, we came together as a nation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The new strategy is to appeal to directly to parents with star power from Hollywood, in the hopes of avoiding contentious political battles. Instead, the group plans to identify and support prevention programs that address the causes of gun violence.

JACKIE BARDEN: It is really not political. It is just about thinking about, you know, we all have children, and what do we need to do in order to make this a safer environment for our children? I think, once you throw the politics out, it becomes simpler.

NICOLE HOCKLEY: We’re not just about guns, and we’re not just about legislation. We are rising above the politics, and we’re looking at the causes of gun violence, particularly mental wellness and community.

And other groups haven’t done that to date, and I think this is a new way for people to engage in something that they haven’t engaged before. And everyone is aware that we have a problem with gun violence in this country, but they feel helpless and not know what to do. They feel, it’s too political, it’s too hard, it’s too much of a fight.

Well, we’re saying, it doesn’t have to be any of those things. This is about a conversation and community-based solutions that we can deliver ourselves and help prevent this.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Nicole Hockley says her family will continue to take things day by day, and she remains optimistic about the future.

NICOLE HOCKLEY: After 12/14, what I saw was a nation really come together in a way that I had not seen happen before, that sense of outrage, but also that sense of love and compassion. And the conversation has changed slightly over this year, but it’s still alive and it’s still there.

And people that had never been engaged in issues before decided to become engaged in this, decided that, enough is enough, it’s time to do something. And I’m really hoping that, through the one-year mark and going forward, we can reignite that sense of togetherness in this country and come back together.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So far, more than 262,000 people have visited their Web site and taken the Sandy Hook Promise.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You know, whatever your position is on guns, Gwen, you have to admire the strength of these parents.

GWEN IFILL: And our thoughts and our prayers actually go out to these families as they approach this anniversary.