The morning of December 14, 2012, I took my baby to the Children's Museum in Norwalk to play. A friend of mine called me to ask me where I was. "There's been a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown." At the time, my son was in preschool, so I reflexively said to her, "Don't worry, my kids don't go to that school." But as I heard my voice echo in my head, my heart sunk. It struck me: someone else's kids did. Like many area mothers, I took to the message boards of our Fairfield county-wide mom's group and asked frantically, "Who's kids go to Sandy Hook?" It was a cathartic moment, when we suddenly all became mothers to each others’ children.
This was my entry into gun violence prevention. 24 hours after this phone call, I gathered with then-strangers in someone's living room trying to make sense of the massacre that killed 20 first graders and six educators. One minute I knew school was the safest place for a child. The next minute we were hearing accounts of the most deadly scene anyone could have ever imagined unfolding in a first grade classroom.
From here my eyes opened up to a country filled with gun violence. It was like somebody took a sleep mask off my eyes and I saw carnage in every direction. Domestic violence. Suicide. Tragic negligence. In some American cities, children live with the threat of gun violence on a daily basis. As of May 29, 2017, according to the Gun Violence Archive, 1,540 children and teens under 18 have been killed or injured due to gun violence in the U.S. And the year is only half over.
With my new friends I met in less than 24 hours after the Sandy Hook shooting, I became a part of the birth of a local citizens’ action group with the other women I met that day. We formed an organization called The ENOUGH Campaign, whose mission is to end gun violence by advocating for more public awareness on the issues of gun violence prevention through legislative advocacy and community education. We organize the annual Stamford Vigil of Hope every December.
This Friday, June 2, 2017, the City of Stamford and Mayor David Martin will join the country in observance of National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Gun violence prevention advocates in Stamford will be kicking off #WearOrange activities in cities across Connecticut to honor all victims and survivors of gun violence. In Stamford, The ENOUGH Campaign is partnering with civic action group Women On Watch, where a press conference will be held with the Mayor and other city and state leaders at Stamford Police headquarters, 805 Bedford Street, 2nd Floor lobby, 9:30 AM. The event is open to the public, and we ask that you please come to support this vital cause.
Following the Stamford press conference, there will be an “Orange Walk” and rally in Newtown at 5:00 PM from Fairfield Hills to Edmond Town Hall. The evening event is sponsored by The Brady Campaign Greater Danbury Chapter, Connecticut Against Gun Violence, The ENOUGH Campaign, Greenwich Council Against Gun Violence, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Newtown Action Alliance, and Sandy Hook Promise. To participate in the walk, sign up at bit.ly/wearorange-CT.
Annually, June is the deadliest month for gun violence. We are fast approaching the one year anniversary of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, where 49 people were killed and another 53 injured, and we mark almost two years since the Charleston shooting where nine churchgoers were killed by a racist gunman. The #WearOrange campaign was inspired by friends of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old Chicago student killed by gunfire, who decided to honor her life by wearing orange on her birthday, the color hunters wear to protect themselves. This Friday, Hadiya would have turned 20.
I am personally determined to end gun violence. As a student of the Stamford Parent Leadership Training Institute and an extension of my advocacy, I have created the Stamford Pediatric Gun Safety Project, whose purpose is to support doctors in incorporating gun safety into pediatric wellness visits. This June 2, I’m going to wear orange, and I ask residents of Stamford to join me in honor of the lives lost and to pledge to reduce gun violence in all its forms.
I have three grandsons, all of whom play sports. My husband and I don’t go to all their games, but the game on this particular Sunday last March was very important because our 11-year-old grandson, Aidan, was competing in the league championship. I was watching with more focus than usual. In the spirit of honesty, I will admit that when Aidan or his brothers are on the bench and not playing, my focus will sometimes wander. Where it had wandered to this time I can’t recall, but when my daughter leaned in close to me and whispered, “Mom, do you see who they’re playing against?” I snapped out of my reverie. I looked at her blankly. “It’s Newtown,” she said.
I immediately locked my gaze onto the back of a single opponent’s green-and-white jersey. The boy was racing down the court, dribbling the ball skillfully toward the basket. And there on his back was the name that carried so much unbearable weight for our state, as well as our nation. Newtown. I felt a crippling weight on my chest as memories of Dec. 14, 2012 flooded back with a tsunami of images and emotions. I made a quick calculation and realized the boys on the opposing team were the right age to be the classmates, siblings, cousins or friends of some of the children who were murdered. Oh, what they all witnessed or experienced that day. Tears burned into the backs of my eyes.
Then the boy made the basket. The people filling the bleachers on the other side of the gym erupted with cheers and whistles and stomped their feet in recognition of the boy and the two points scored. For a moment, the room vibrated with their happiness. Then I realized who these happy people were. They were the parents, grandparents, siblings or friends of the children who were murdered that day by a severely mentally ill, socially alienated young man carrying a semi-automatic rifle and two handguns. All of the people cheering, children and adults alike, were finding ways to put their grief aside and resurrect their lives in spite of what our country’s horrendously lax gun laws had brought upon their families and their community.
All of the above brings me to my own past relationship to guns. As a child growing up in the 1950s, I played with guns — cap guns and toy rifles. How could you play cowboys and Indians and cops and robbers without guns? My parents didn’t hesitate when I asked them to buy me a holster for my gun. It was no different when I begged for chaps for my blue jeans, a sheriff’s badge, or a Dick Tracy watch. The good guy had to beat the bad guy, right? And one way of doing this was by shooting him.
I lost my affection for guns at about age 10, but have maintained an interest in law enforcement. When I was 27, foolishly I’ll admit, I even made a citizen’s arrest of a drug-addicted robber. It was because of the Sandy Hook tragedy, however, and my growing awareness of the enormous political clout of the National Rifle Association that I began to participate actively in anti-gun violence causes.
In addition to the NRA’s political rhetoric about guns in our society, police use of weapons was also of compelling concern to me. News reports of officers using firearms in hard-to-explain ways resulting in the killings of so many African-American men, was straining my childhood notion of the police as always being the good guys.
Last month I learned about the Greenwich Police Citizens’ Policy Academy (GPCPA), an intensive 11-week course designed to educate the community about how police are trained to professionally carry out all aspects of their jobs. The instructors are highly experienced Greenwich police officers. I saw this course as my opportunity to receive a clearer understanding of how law enforcement works.
In addition to 265 hours of class time, there is also an off-site re-enactment of a hostage situation; an opportunity to accompany officers on marine and patrol car ride-alongs; and a class held at the police firing range. At that setting, students receive a summary but explicit lesson on gun safety, firing range etiquette, and gun grip followed by practice shooting with live ammo at a target. The next section of the class would involve an exercise requiring split-second judgment about whether to use lethal force.
I applied and my application was accepted. This is how on the evening of May 1, I found myself, an anti-gun activist, in the unlikely setting of a shooting range, holding a 9mm Glock pistol with a single live bullet in the chamber. I was ready to respond to a video reenactment of a “shots fired” 911 call.
The two students before me responded to their video scenarios of active shooters at a car dealership and an auto body shop. Where was my storyline going to take place? It was in a school, of all places. A teenage boy was arguing with a teacher in the front hall. Shots rang out. I tensed up immediately. Where did the shots come from? I felt my heartbeat quicken. I gripped the handle of my gun tightly, at the same time trying desperately to prevent my trigger finger from becoming too tense. Suddenly a set of double doors swung open and two students raced through them, seemingly right at me. I didn’t think. I reacted. BOOM! I shot and “killed” a young, unarmed girl. Then, two more students charged through the doors, both of them unarmed. Another teenager raced out and on his heels was a boy with a gun pointed at him. I was helpless to do anything because I had already used my one bullet to “kill” an innocent student. The shooter fired and “killed” the boy running in front of him. End of scenario.
It was also the end of my bewilderment. I now understand how police officers can make mistakes and kill someone in what they assume to be a life-or-death situation. Having experienced my anxiety about when to fire a weapon, even though it was in a simulated situation, I now have an unmistakable sense of what can be going on in a “good guy’s” head when he or she believes their or someone else’s life is at stake. The decision to fire or not to fire has to be made in a second. For me, whether guns are in the hands of the wrong people or the right people, they will still always be dangerous.
Finally, my grandson’s basketball game against Newtown and the anguished memories it triggered in me now have a larger meaning beyond that athletic competition. My studies at the GPCPA have armed me with the knowledge that owning and using a firearm involves split-second decision-making. Such decisions require full use of human faculties. Newtown’s horrific tragedy was caused by an individual whose mental illness impaired his cognitive and decision-making processes. Such individuals must never have access to firearms. No more Newtowns!