Communities affected by mass shootings face ‘reverberating loss’ in the years ahead

Gun violence and the lasting impacts of mass shootings in the U.S. have consumed much of the nation in recent weeks, after the massacres in New York, Texas, Oklahoma, and elsewhere. The New York Times' Elizabeth Williamson, author of “Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth," joins Amna Nawaz to discuss how these attacks affect communities for years afterward.

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  • William Brangham:

    Let's turn now to the subject that is consumed much of the nation this week in the past several weeks, gun violence and the lasting impact of these mass shootings.

    We're going to hear from a number of voices about that subject tonight.

    Amna Nawaz begins our look.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    William, as we know, Congress and the two parties have been deadlocked in a stalemate for years over what measures could or should be taken.

    In his speech last night, President Biden called for Congress to pass major bills, including a ban on assault-style weapons, expanded background checks, age limits on purchases, and red flag laws. In doing so, he cited some of the cities and communities devastated by past shootings.

  • President Joe Biden:

    After Columbine, after Sandy Hook, after Charleston, after Orlando, after Las Vegas, after Parkland, nothing has been done.

    This time, that can't be true. This time, we must actually do something.

    Imagine what it's like for children who experience this kind of trauma every day in school, in the streets, in communities all across America.

    Imagine what it is like for so many parents to hug their children goodbye in the morning, not sure whether they'll come back home.

    Unfortunately, too many people don't have to imagine that at all.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Of course, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Uvalde, Texas, are now the latest communities to struggle with all of this.

    In Uvalde alone, there are five funerals and visitations today.

    Elizabeth Williamson of The New York Times has extensively covered the many ways these attacks affect communities for years afterward. It's part of the focus of her new book called "Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth."

    Elizabeth, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you for being here.

    Elizabeth Williamson, Author, "Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth": Thank you, Amna.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, you talked to families in Newtown about that Sandy Hook shooting we all remember, so horrific.

    And that moment immediately afterward, when the world is watching and the media has descended, you talked to them about what they felt in that moment, what they were going through. What did they share with you? What was it like?

  • Elizabeth Williamson:

    So the families that I spoke with talked about this sense of the media onslaught kind of feeling like prey almost, that there were so many requests for interviews.

    The presence of the media kind of even altered the landscape of the town. There was an influx of goods and services and money that was very disorienting that people really struggled to accommodate and even to store. And then, of course, there was the appearance of conspiracy theorists, people who claimed that the shooting never occurred at all, and were following the families, digging through their trash, looking in their windows, and generally really tormenting them in those first weeks and months.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This one part of it really stuck with me, when you talked about what you call the global spasm of heartbreak and generosity, because I think we see this again and again.

    People want to help. They send messages, they send gifts, they send donations. What did the families in Sandy Hook — in Newtown, rather, tell you about, as you put it, how burdensome some of that was in the time?

  • Elizabeth Williamson:

    Yes, I think it is a wonderful thing about Americans that they open their hearts and their wallets, and they want to send any kind of help they can.

    But when you have so many people doing that, you have this influx of 68,000 teddy bears, enough mail that they had to open a new substation at the post office, they had to get warehouse space. And so, for the families, while they really appreciated that sort of upwelling, what they also struggled with was, what do we do with all of this, and how do we accommodate? How do we store it? How do we acknowledge it? How do we use it?

    And, also, the money that came in there quickly arose a dispute over who that money should go to? And it's been established since that that money should definitely go to the families and the survivors.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Journalists often get accused of sanitizing the issue, of not speaking sort of more bluntly about the brutality of some of these attacks, particularly when you're talking about children.

    What do you hear from the families about how they see this argument about whether or not those kinds of more brutal and graphic images should or shouldn't be shared?

  • Elizabeth Williamson:

    I have yet to speak to a Sandy Hook family member that would be in favor of having those photographs released.

    They are extremely painful and traumatizing to them. And while I know, because I have written about this, that there are a number of people who — and policymakers even who think that these would have an impact on the debate, that they would move our country out of its official inertia.

    But, because I have looked at disinformation around Sandy Hook and around so many other major events, I actually think that these photos could have a different impact. And that's that, as Lenny Pozner, the father of Noah Pozner, the youngest Sandy Hook victim, said, it could just intensify and add fuel to the disinformation that circulates after mass shootings.

    People could produce those photos in different contexts. They could be mailing them or e-mailing them to the families themselves. They could be used as an additional source of harassment and pain.

    And so I think that any release with — of that type of material would have to be up to the individual survivor and family member. And even then, the families tell me you have to consider how the release of that material by one family member would impact all the others. And that is a worry for them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You know, Elizabeth, I heard this on the ground in Uvalde too, where people said: We understand why you're here, but we know the cameras are going to leave, the attention will fade, and we as a community will be left to grapple with this. And we have been forever changed.

    Based on what you learned the Sandy Hook families have endured over the last 10 years, what can you say about what's ahead for the families in Uvalde and Tulsa and so many other communities?

  • Elizabeth Williamson:

    What these communities face, Amna, is a reverberating loss.

    It kind of radiates outward like fallout from the event itself throughout the community. There are impacts that people in Uvalde, just like in any other community where this type of violence occurs, that no one can predict.

    There will be a lot of anger, a lot of sadness, a lot of stray voltage emotionally that really impacts how a town pulls through. These immediate aftermath do not lend themselves to redemptive narratives. It's not a triumphant kind of story. It's a long, hard, painful slog for a community where this happens.

    And it is a very long healing process.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Elizabeth Williamson of The New York Times, author of the new book "Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth."

    Thank you for being with us.

  • Elizabeth Williamson:

    Thank you, Amna.

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