Ten years after one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history, residents of the Connecticut town where it took place marked Wednesday’s anniversary by attending vigils, paying respects at a new memorial and reflecting in private with loved ones.
The rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012 – when a heavily armed gunman killed 20 young children and six educators – shocked the country and forever linked Newtown, a picturesque New England town, with the epidemic of mass shootings that has wracked the United States in recent years.
For many residents, the anniversary means a phalanx of reporters and cameras and yet another round of recurring stress. Yet it is also a time to honor the memories of the fallen, be it at a church service or a gathering of family and close friends.
At a memorial mass held every year at St. Rose of Lima Church, where many of the slain 6- and 7-year-olds had worshipped, Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport spoke of the “senseless evil” behind the shooting and of the wounds that “perhaps will never fully heal” in the town of 27,000 people.
But Caggiano also noted how, not long after the tragedy, the community responded with a motto that quickly found its way onto bumper stickers: We are Sandy Hook, We choose love.
“A profound affirmation that we believe that love can heal, that love gives hope, that love shines in the darkest hours of the night,” Caggiano said to the more than 300 people in attendance. “We must go forward and choose love.”
This year’s anniversary comes on the heels of recent court rulings in which conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and the parent of his Infowars website were ordered to pay about $1.5 billion for spreading lies about Sandy Hook. For years, Jones claimed the shooting was a hoax, compounding the community’s grief.
It also comes six months after the U.S. Congress passed the first major federal gun reform in three decades, a bipartisan bill that included $750 million to help states implement red flag laws. It came together just weeks after two teachers and 19 elementary school students were killed in Uvalde, Texas, and 10 people were shot to death at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York.
Noting the enactment of the bill, President Joe Biden said in a statement on Wednesday that more was needed to be done on gun control. He renewed a call to ban the kind of military-style rifles used in Sandy Hook and many other mass shootings.
“We owe it to the courageous, young survivors and to the families who lost part of their soul 10 years ago to turn their pain into purpose,” Biden said. “Enough is enough.”
Early on Wednesday morning, several residents visited the memorial, which opened to the public last month. Set on 5 acres (2 hectares) bordering the school grounds where the massacre occurred, the monument’s focal point is a circular water feature with the names of the 26 victims engraved on granite capstones.
One of the visitors, Skeff Bisset, had two children who were inside the school in 2012 and survived. Wearing a green sweater – the Sandy Hook school color – he walked the memorial, stopping at the names of the children who now would have been 16 and 17.
“This is a celebrity nobody wants,” Bisset said of the spotlight on Newtown. “The only reason I’m here, you know, remembering this, is because 26 people lost their lives. We are blessed that our kids are continuing to thrive and grow.”
Members of the National Teachers Hall of Fame in Kansas presented a wreath with six white roses and 20 mini carnations at the memorial on Wednesday. The ceremony was meant to symbolically connect the memorial with one in Emporia, Kansas, for educators who have lost their lives.
“We want the people of Newtown, Connecticut, to know that halfway across the country in the heart of America, we remember those people that were so dear to you,” said Carol Strickland of the Hall of Fame after reciting the names of the six educators.
Mark Barden, whose 7-year-old son Daniel was killed at Sandy Hook, is one of several parents who channeled their grief into advocacy. He co-founded Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit that aims to educate teachers and students about warning signs that can be used to identify likely mass shooters.
Barden said he hoped people would take a moment on Wednesday to remember all the victims of gun violence but then also ask themselves what they can do to address the problem. Just talking with others about potential solutions is important, he said.
“If everybody does a little bit, we can really make a difference,” Barden said.