This year on Dec. 14, we will mark the seventh anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 little first-graders and six adults were killed by a disturbed individual armed with a Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle.
It was a singular event in our history, shocking the nation’s conscience. Unfortunately, it takes but a moment’s thought to bring me right back to that day, because by early afternoon I had learned that my cousin’s son Daniel was among those who had been killed.
In stark contrast to what lay ahead, Dec. 14 dawned as a beautiful, clear day. By about 9:30 a.m., the school day had begun and the doors were locked. But then 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who had shot and killed his mother just minutes earlier, arrived at Sandy Hook.
Investigators would later learn that the home he had shared with his mother contained an astonishing arsenal of weapons and ammunition, and he arrived at the school with two semi-automatic handguns, a shotgun, and an XM-15 assault rifle equipped with 10 30-round magazines. He then shot his way into the building through a glass door and began a rampage with the assault rifle.
In what must have seemed like an eternity but lasted just under 10 minutes, the shooter claimed the lives of 20 6- and 7-year-old children and six adults before turning the gun on himself. In total, 154 bullets were fired, and each child victim was shot between three and 11 times.
To add to the horror, the public address system was on and broadcast the entire episode throughout the building as it unfolded. 911 calls went out almost immediately, and the local hospital was told to prepare for a tremendous influx of wounded. Instead they received almost no one. With the exception of the vice principal, who was shot in the leg, there was no one left to save.
For the most part, first responders who emerged from the building were unable or unwilling to talk about what they had seen. Of course parents were becoming increasingly frantic to know that their child was safe, but finally came an excruciating moment when they were told that if they had not been reunited with their child, they were not going to be.
It just left the families, and indeed all of us, to deal with the aftermath and to turn to our leaders for help in preventing this from ever happening again.
As we all know, school shootings and mass shootings have continued to occur with frightening regularity. In spite of all this, there has been no meaningful federal gun safety legislation since Sandy Hook. And at the state level, it remains a patchwork of efforts at reform or lack thereof. Even here in Minnesota, we remain stalled on the most basic reform in spite of overwhelming public support.
For most of us, it has become absolutely unacceptable to live like this. But there is hope.
The story of Sandy Hook included tremendous acts of heroism and devotion. The trajectory of wounds sustained by the school principal, 5-foot-tall Dawn Hochsprung, demonstrate that she was lunging through a hail of bullets trying to save her children. And so many of the students were found under the arms or bodies of their teachers as they tried to shield them from the shooter.
When even modest gun safety measures failed in Congress right after Newtown, the contrast between the bravery of the teachers and the cowardice of those lawmakers who would not stand up to the gun lobby fostered what can only be described as disgust among many Americans, and it helped to spur them to action.
Organizations dedicated to gun safety reform are now staffed by many millions of volunteers, who recognize that without meaningful cultural and legislative progress around the acquisition, ownership and use of guns in this country, nothing is going to change.
So for all of us who have lost loved ones to senseless gun violence, and for all Americans, we can hope that this country will finally turn itself around and do the right thing. Let that be the legacy of Sandy Hook.