We know the old story. A mass shooting happens and the victims’ families suddenly become anti-gun celebrities. They’re supposedly immune from criticism and they have emotionally powerful stories that sway public perception of gun control. For a time, at least.
Once emotion settles down, the public starts to recognize that gun control isn’t really the answer for these kinds of things.
However, a couple of Sandy Hook moms have started trying to address the problem of mass shootings in a very real way.
On December 14, 2012, Scarlett Lewis waited at a local firehouse in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, to hear whether her six-year-old son, Jesse, had survived what would later be known as the deadliest school shooting in American history. As the world now knows, 26 people were killed by a lone gunman at the elementary school that day: 20 young students, and six adult staff members.
Lewis’ mind raced as she waited for news, spinning and conjuring nightmare scenarios as the minutes ticked by slowly. Horrendously, her worst fear came to pass. Jesse had been shot and killed in his classroom. There was nothing left to do that early winter day but go home—without her son.
After walking in the door, Lewis discovered what she came to believe was a sign left behind by Jesse in his misspelled, messy handwriting. “He wrote on the kitchen chalkboard, ‘Nurturing,’ ‘Healing,’ ‘Love,’” Lewis, now 53 and an inaugural 50 Over 50 Impact honoree, told Forbes. “I was blown away…these three words, I knew they were something important.”
In the shooting’s aftermath, Lewis recalls watching as the country’s anger spilled over, with the desire to point fingers and assign blame. “There were already a lot of people doing gun control,” she says. “But I knew that wasn’t addressing the cause of suffering and anguish that leads a child to pick up a gun, or commit suicide, or overdose, or even bully.” She decided to take action, using Jesse’s chalkboard message as the rallying cry. Meetings with child psychologists and academics became the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, a nonprofit that provides free social and emotional learning programs to children and adults. In just five years of the nonprofit’s existence (with 2019 revenue at just $722,000) Lewis says their programming is in 10,000 schools and every U.S. state, largely spread by word of mouth; internationally, it’s in 100 countries.
What’s less surprising than the state of gun violence in America is that Lewis isn’t the only Sandy Hook mom to start campaigning for gun safety. Nicole Hockley, 50, lost her six-year-old son Dylan in the shooting and went on to found Sandy Hook Promise. Kris Brown, 52 and now the president of the Brady Campaign, a leading anti-gun violence group, has friends and colleagues stretching back decades who have lost loved ones to violence. Together, these women took their anguish—and decades of life experience—and transformed them into something even more potent: real, tangible action.
At first, Sandy Hook Promise focused exclusively on policy, Hockley says, by working with the Obama Administration on a 2013 bill to expand background checks. But the bill failed, inspiring what she called a “reawakening.” After about a year and a half of research, the cofounders settled on a new approach: teaching children and adults how to recognize warning signs of violence as a means of prevention. In the eight years since its founding, Sandy Hook Promise has taught over 12 million participants, including in over 14,000 schools and 3,000 youth clubs. The group also offers a smartphone app where users can anonymously report tips on self-harm or violence towards others, so far saving 255 lives through 60,000 tips, and helped 2,100 students experiencing mental health crises. “I think what a lot of people don’t realize about being a parent of a mass shooting victim is that any parent is a lot closer to it than they ever want to realize,” Hockley says.
Look, Hockley and Lewis probably disagree with me about a whole lot, including the subject of gun control.
However, I respect the hell out of them recognizing the reality–that gun control is a non-starter for millions of Americans–and started looking for ways to address the problem outside of gun control. Far too many people get hung up on gun control as a supposed solution and fail to recognize that there are other ways to address the issue.
Hockley and Lewis did, and I applaud them for it. I suspect their actions now will reduce the potential for mass shootings to a much greater degree than any bit of gun control ever would. Ban AR-15s and the would-be killer will just use a handgun. Yet if you address the fact that there’s a person who is the issue, you can him from himself.
I’m glad to see these women being featured. I can only hope we’ll start to see others join them in this effort which is much more likely to yield positive results and gain support from across the political spectrum.