Sandy Hook is More Than a Talking Point

On Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, Presidential hopeful Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) was asked about gun control during a town hall event in Iowa. In defense of her pro gun control answer, Harris invoked the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012. Specifically, Senator Harris said, “Here’s what I think. I think that somebody should have required—and this is going to sound very harsh—I think somebody should have required all  those members of Congress to go in a room, in a locked room, no press, nobody else, and look at the autopsy photographs of those babies. And then you vote your conscience.”

Photograph of a Sandy Hook Memorial, Courtesy of ABC News.

Photograph of a Sandy Hook Memorial, Courtesy of ABC News.

I first heard these remarks played in the context of a podcast I was listening to while cleaning snow off of my car, and I am not ashamed to say that I cursed out loud upon hearing them. You see, I am from a little town called Bethel, Connecticut. I went to school less than twenty minutes from Sandy Hook, which is a hamlet of neighboring Newtown, Connecticut. For me, Sandy Hook is not just the shorthand name of a famous mass shooting; it is a personal experience.

Let me be clear, I am not claiming to have been present at, or directly affected by, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I was not. I was, however, a freshman at Bethel High School just eight and a half miles from Sandy Hook and, despite the fact that the shooting happened over six years ago, I remember certain details from that day like it was yesterday.

I was in study hall reviewing for a Spanish quiz on Dec. 14, 2012 when, without explanation, my school was put into lockdown. Soon after, again without explanation, we were told that we could move about our classroom and resume talking, but were forbidden from leaving the room. I, and the rest of the students in my study hall, immediately went on the internet to try to figure out what was happening.

We read article after article about how there had been a shooting in the town we all knew was but a short car ride away, and we heard rumor after rumor about what was going to  happen next. The man who shot those kids escaped, and is driving around in a van in the area. Police discovered a map on the scene with X’s drawn over neighboring schools. And, most terrifying of all, he was coming for us next. All of these rumors turned out to be untrue, but to a room full of twenty or so high school students, they were terrifyingly real. Myself and all of the other students at my high school were eventually shepherded one class at a time to our lunch room where, surrounded by significantly more security than usual, we ate a rushed lunch before being sent back to our classrooms.

After school finally ended, I went home to find my mom beside herself. She had been following the news coming out of Newtown all day and, like many other parents horrified by what they saw, had decided to pick me and my sister, who was in middle school at the time, up from school early. When she got to the school complex, she was shocked to discover that the Bethel Police Department had completely shut down all access to the roads leading to and from the schools. My mother was then turned away and told that, for the safety of all of the children behind that police line, she and all of the other distraught parents who desperately wanted to bring their children home had to wait.

We spent the rest of the day fielding phone calls from concerned relatives who had seen the story on the news and wanted to make sure we were okay. That night, my mom and I went to a prayer service for the victims that was being held at Saint Mary’s Church in Bethel. During the service, the priest who was officiating told us that he and the other priests from our Parish had spent the day visiting the families of the victims—trying to comfort them and help them make sense of the evil they had just confronted.

When I went back to school, it was announced over the loudspeaker that there would be councilors available if anyone needed to talk about what had happened. Later that day, I  learned that the mother of the student-teacher who had been assigned to my geometry class, Ms. Murphy, was among the dead. According to a CNN report from 2012 about her mother, “Anne Marie Murphy's body was found in a classroom, slumped over young children killed in the shooting. The 52-year-old special education teacher was apparently attempting to shield them.”

At some point in the next few days, my mom and I went to the memorial that had been set up in Sandy Hook, a memorial which sprawled over several blocks in the middle of the small hamlet. My mom and I walked from street to street, awestruck by the outpouring of love and support from around the country that was on display. We saw mountains of stuffed animals. We saw picture after picture, sign after sign, call for prayers after call for prayers. One image that sticks in my mind all these years later is a sign that had written on it one simple phrase: “Texas Loves Y’all”.

Again, and I can’t stress this enough, I am not a victim of the attack in Sandy Hook. I wasn’t there. I was never in danger, despite what myself and my classmates thought at the time. I didn’t personally know anyone who was killed in the attack. My recounting my own experiences from that day and the days after is not meant to elicit your sympathy, but rather to demonstrate my empathy. My secondary experience pales in comparison to the intensity and horror of those who truly experienced the terror and evil of that day. My goal in sharing with you the story of my experience with the shooting in Sandy Hook is to show the human side of the chyrons describing school shootings you see on the news.

This article is due to my editor this Thursday, Feb.14th. Coincidentally, this Thursday is also the one year anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. I am already bracing myself for the onslaught of pro gun control politicians who will no doubt flood my Facebook feed on Thursday, invoking the children and faculty who were murdered to forward their political agenda.

You may notice that I have not told you my personal thoughts on gun control, and that is no accident. If you believe in gun control, fine. If you think the Second Amendment should be  repealed and every gun in America should be confiscated, all the power to you. But please, please, do not use the children who died in Sandy Hook, or Parkland, or any other school to score political points.

I am sure that politicians like Kamala Harris and Barack Obama, both of whom have used the example of Sandy Hook to advocate for gun control, mean well. But I—along with everyone from my town, everyone from Newtown, and everyone from any town that has witnessed the horror of a school shooting—know something that Harris and Obama likely do not. When after a week or two the national media forgets about a recent school shooting, and all the camera crews leave town, and the name of the perpetrator of the most recent heinous attack on our children fades from the average American’s mind—the people of the town whose school children were just massacred are still suffering from their indescribable loss. Once the nation’s politicians and pundits have turned their attention to another story, the parents are left to plan their children's funerals, to explain to their other kids why their brother or sister are never coming home, and to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and try to find the strength to keep living—all while knowing that they will never get to hug their children again.

So when Kamala Harris suggests that Republican politicians be forced to look at the autopsy photos of the kids who were gunned down in Sandy Hook before they vote on gun control legislation, I have just two words to say to her: kick rocks. Spare me the moral condescension, because I know that implicit in the statement from Sen. Harris transcribed above, and lots of similar statements made by pro gun control politicians, is the assumption that my or anyone else's opposition to gun control measures ipso facto means that we do not care about the children who died in Sandy Hook. I care. I have friends from Sandy Hook. I have seen what that day did to that community. I challenge any Senate Democrat, perhaps with the exception of the two from Connecticut, to give me the first and last name of the man who shot those kids without first running a Google search.

You are likely reading this shortly after the one year anniversary of the shooting in Parkland, Florida. There is no reason that reading this article should stop you from discussing gun control, or school shootings, or any other topic. I am not trying to convince you to change your mind on gun rights or any other related subject. There are people who have been personally affected by gun violence on both sides of this issue. All I ask is this: for the sake of all those children who were killed in Sandy Hook, and for all of the parents whose children were taken from them before they got to see them grow up, and for all of the people whose brother or sister, niece or nephew, or grandson or granddaughter was gunned down just ten days before Christmas a little over six years ago—do not use other people’s tragedy to make a political point. Instead of politicizing the suffering of others, let people heal and process their grief. Assume a baseline level of good faith and human decency on behalf of your political interlocutors. We may not all agree on contentious political issues like gun control, but we are all against the murder of children.

Joseph PerrottaComment