NEWTOWN, Conn.—Saying their devastated community must harness the magnitude of Friday’s shooting to effect change, more than 70 Newtown residents gathered as a new grassroots organization Wednesday night to address major issues related to the tragedy, including gun control, violent video games, mental health and legislation.
Born two days after a 20-year-old Sandy Hook man shot and killed 20 children, six adults, his own mother and then himself, Newtown United is just four days old.
A handful of its founding members—including a 16-year-old who attended Sandy Hook Elementary School—already have met with legislators in Washington, D.C. At its third meeting, held in a meeting room at the C.H. Booth Library, the group heard from two members of Congress who advised on what members needed to do, sketched out a committee structure and gathered email addresses from attendees.
“Something has to change,” Lee Shull—a SAP consultant and Newtown resident for eight years whose twins went through Sandy Hook Elementary School—told the often tearful crowd, many wearing green-and-white ribbons, the colors of Sandy Hook Elementary School. “We can’t let this happen again. It’s a watershed moment.”
The scope of questions raised in the 2.5-hour meeting spoke to range of challenges the group faces: What’s our message? Priorities? Action items? Committees? How to communicate?
Many agreed that reducing gun violence could emerge as the group’s central guiding principle, and several attendees spoke about the impact of violent video games.
“We need to get the high school students to bring in video games that have violence in them, and have a bulldozer run over them,” said Steven Tenenbaum, a surgeon at Danbury Hospital and Newtown resident since 1986 with three children, one of whom attended the Sandy Hook school, earning applause.
The youngest speaker to address the crowd, 12-year-old Max Mittleman of Newtown, said that until Friday, he and his stepbrother had been buying and playing violent video games for years.
Mittleman said he got together with his family and came up with this concept: “Played Out: Choose Not to Play.” The effort may involve selling violent games back to video game makers, he said.
Another teenager—Tess Murray, 16, a Newtown resident who attended Sandy Hook Elementary School, as did her three siblings—said Newtown has an opportunity right now to reach high school students who have been united by the tragic shooting.
“I’ve never seen any student or any group of students so passionate about something and it amazed me,” Murray said. She added that while a Facebook page that's garnered nearly 10,000 fans is strong, there are scores of pages on the social media website that compete for digital readers' limited attention. Murray said she wants to speak to her principal and organize students behind Newtown United’s efforts.
The meeting room of this 80-year-old library sits on the ground floor, where the facility’s children’s section is located. The library itself is less than two miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The shooting there has cast an alien spotlight on Newtown and drawn hordes of probing strangers—members of the national and international media—to a tightknit community that prides itself on civic involvement.
People here care deeply about their schools, services and each other. Located about 60 miles northeast of New York City, major local stories in Newtown this year before Friday included a divisive municipal budget, a controversy involving local bus drivers and power restoration in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Rather than crying faces and aerial diagrams of one of the town’s elementary schools, images associated with Newtown among locals more likely were children sledding and playing youth sports, cows on farms, town parades—even black bears wandering across back decks.
The national media’s presence itself has emerged as a storyline. Cable news reporters have started referring to difficulties that they say this community will experience when the spotlight thrust upon Newtown by their own networks moves on, and the support and attention heaped upon Newtown starts to fade—as though those two things were the same.
Alfred Tomaj, 36, a market manager who has been living in Newtown for nine years, called the media attention “almost frustrating.”
“We are very proud of the community, a lot of neighbors who live together are really getting along, and we appreciate the love and support from outside communities,” Tomaj said. “But with the media, it’s almost frustrating. It’s like, do they have the best interests of the kids in mind?”
No one knows how, whether or when things will return to something like normal. For many of those in attendance at Wednesday’s forum, simply connecting with each other felt like a simple first step.
Scott Keating, 18, a 2012 Newtown High School graduate who attends the University of Massachusetts, said there’s power in coming together as a community.
“It’s good to get together and meet new faces,” Keating said. “In the face of a tragedy like this is when you band together. As a community, you can get something done that you can’t get done yourself.”
The meeting opened with addresses from U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Sen.-elect Chris Murphy, a congressman representing the 5th congressional district, which includes Newtown. Both men urged Newtown United to build out their support network nationally.
“I think this horrific tragedy has changed America in a way that it’s ready to stop the spread of gun violence,” Blumenthal said.
“There has been a seismic change in public consciousness and the political landscape,” he added.
Murphy said: “We have to talk about the celebration of violence in this country.”
Newtown resident David Stout, an energy consultant who started hunting about eight years ago, stressed that what is at issue is not guns themselves but responsible use of guns.
Some of those in attendance—including Jason Petrelli, a Newtown resident for 12 years who works as a design builder—urged the group to be more aggressive.
“Now is the time to push,” he said. “We can’t sit back. We can’t get trapped in this room. It’s time to push right now.”
Before he left, Blumenthal congratulated Newtown United, saying: “Here you have been hit with the most horrific tragedy within recent memory except maybe 9/11, and its impact on the town could have been divisive and destructive, but instead it has brought people together in a way that has been incredibly impressive.”
The major point that both Blumenthal and Murphy hit repeatedly was that Newtown United needed to find a way to capture and sustain interest in overhauling gun legislation in the face of one major enemy: time.
"The other side is waiting for time to pass," Murphy said, referring to gun lobbyists seeking to preserve the status quo.
Behind the legislator stood a painting called “Newtown’s Core Character Attributes,” which listed the following nouns as branches in a tree under the title “Cultivating Character”: