Two Years Later, There are Sandy Hook Lessons Still to be Learned

People attend a National Vigil for Victims of Gun Violence just prior to the first anniversary marking the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting at the National Cathedral on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/The Washington Post, Matt McClain, Pool) (Photo: AP )
People attend a National Vigil for Victims of Gun Violence just prior to the first anniversary marking the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting at the National Cathedral on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/The Washington Post, Matt McClain, Pool) (Photo: AP )

Rob Cox, a 1989 graduate of the University of Vermont, was the somewhat reluctant recipient of this year’s Alumni Achievement Award, presented as part of homecoming weekend earlier this month.

In brief remarks, Cox said he was “deeply honored and humbled.” His ambivalence came from the reason he was recognized.

“It’s safe to say I would not be here tonight if it weren’t for what happened on Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, my hometown,” Cox told a gathering of fellow alumni, including about 25 friends from his years at UVM. “In that respect, I would trade pretty much anything not to be here accepting this award.”

On that day in 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six teachers and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School before killing himself. He also murdered his mother in their Newtown home.

Cox, 47, was so deeply affected by the tragedy that he took a leave of absence from his job to help start Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit organization working to address the root causes for such an unimaginable event, including mental health screening and access to weapons. It was for that work that UVM recognized Cox with the alumni award.

Cox is global editor for Reuters Breakingviews, real-time financial commentary that Cox and his partners launched in 1999 as an online startup before being bought in 2009 by Thomson Reuters for $25 million.

Cox stayed on as editor and manages a staff of 32 correspondents around the world from his office at Reuters in New York City. His home is in Newtown, where Cox grew up and his parents still live.

After having worked abroad as a journalist for a decade, Cox never thought he would return to live in Newtown. He and his wife realized, however, that it would be nice to have their children’s grandparents nearby, while also having reasonable access to the city. Newtown is about a 90-minute train ride from Manhattan.

On the day of the Sandy Hook tragedy, Cox was returning to New York from London when his cellphone lit up on landing.

“The first text I got was from a friend in Denmark saying, ‘Please tell me your son is not in that school,’ ” Cox said.

His son wasn’t.

By the time his plane reached the gate, Cox knew as much as there was to be known about Sandy Hook, because of his Reuters colleagues and making a few calls.

“We didn’t know how many, or precise details,” he remembered.

Cox phoned his wife, who was on her way to pick up their eldest son from boarding school. The younger son, she said, was in lockdown at his middle school in Newtown.

Although neither of his sons had attended Sandy Hook, Cox knew the school well. It was where the Jolly Green Giant Fair was held every year, with big green footprints placed on the long driveway leading to the school building. Cox had been following those footprints since he was a kid.

Now, he tried to understand what had happened.

“I thought that something had opened up in the firmament of my society,” Cox said. “My first thought wasn’t, ‘Oh my God, this is a gun problem.’ It was, ‘Oh my lord, how can something of this dimension happen? This must say something about us, our community, our society. We need to understand how this could possibly happen.’ ”

A hug goodbye

Mark Barden, a musician and stay-at-home dad, was getting his three children ready for school in their Newtown home the morning of Dec. 14, 2012. James, 12, had a 6:30 a.m. bus to catch.

Natalie, 10, had a 7:30 bus, and Daniel, 7, left last at 8:30. This had been the schedule since September, and Mark Barden had wakened each of his children in time to catch their buses.

This morning, something different happened.

“James and I were walking down the driveway. I’m walking him to the bus stop, and I hear footsteps behind me, and it’s this little guy, in his pajamas with flip-flops on his little feet, running down the driveway, and it’s still dark out and, you know, 15 degrees,” Mark Barden said in a recent interview with the Burlington Free Press.

Barden asked his youngest son, Daniel, what he was doing awake.

“And he said, ‘I wanted to hug and kiss James and tell him I love him, say goodbye to him,’ ” Mark Barden said. “So he did. I put him on my shoulders, and we walked to the bus together.”

When Mark and Daniel returned to the house, Barden told his son he had plenty of time to return to bed before he had to catch his bus. But Daniel wanted to stay up.

Barden turned on the Christmas tree lights, and he and his son sat on the couch, watching the sky turn pink and red as the sun rose. The reflection of the lights from the tree, mixed with the sunlight streaming in the window, created a kind of collage that Daniel excitedly pointed out to his father. Barden went to get his camera.

“I have this picture now of that sunrise through that window with the Christmas tree lights in the background,” he said.

Father and son woke up Natalie next, and Mark Barden told his son he would be right back after taking his sister to her bus.

“He said, ‘I want to come,’ ” Mark Barden said. “So he had to come to Natalie’s bus and give her a hug and a kiss and tell her he loved her, too.”

Natalie had been taking piano lessons, and when Barden and Daniel returned again to their home, the son asked his father to teach him to play something on the piano.

“I taught him Jingle Bells, and he played it beautifully,” Mark Barden said. “This kid is going to be an amazing musician!”

Finally, Barden walked his youngest son down the driveway to catch his bus to Sandy Hook Elementary School, begging off the game of tag the two usually played, because he was still stiff from playing a gig the night before.

“Of course he agreed happily, so we just held hands. I hugged him and kissed him as I did every morning and put him on the bus,” Barden said.

That was the last time he saw his son alive.

A life raft

Once Rob Cox arrived home from New York on the day Sandy Hook happened and hugged his two children, he felt the need to be around the people in the town he had known all his life.

How could this have happened here?

Newtown is comfortable and welcoming, an appealing mix of upscale strip malls and traditional New England brick buildings with white columns and black shutters, hugging Connecticut Route 25 as it winds through the forested and undulating landscape of Fairfield County. On Main Street, a flagpole erected in 1876 is planted squarely in the middle of an intersection, making for some awkward left turns, but no one would have it any other way in Newtown.

That Friday night, Dec. 14, 2012, Cox attended a vigil at St. Rose, the Catholic church in town.

“I’m not a Catholic, and I never go there, but that was the forum,” Cox said.

A priest read a letter from Pope Benedict, exhorting people that this tragedy was unnatural, that it should never have happened, that it could have been prevented.

“I thought that was to me,” Cox said. “Yeah, what could I have done to prevent this? Hold on, time out. That this would happen suggests a whole series of failures, and that’s the point. That’s what guided me early on.”

Cox wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal that appeared the Monday after the shooting. In it, he recounted how Adam Lanza, whom he did not know, had “attended the town’s public schools, batted on its sports fields, and played with its children.”

“There can be no explanation for his behavior, no motive,” Cox wrote. “We can only ask questions. How did Lanza have access to an arsenal of weapons at home? Did his mother seek help for him? If he had changed for the worse, were his peers or neighbors aware? Could they, or we, have done more to involve him in our community? Did the law, and our Constitution, make his massacre easier to carry out?”

In asking these wrenching questions, Cox was essentially framing the mission of the organization he would help to forge during the coming weeks in Newtown. Sandy Hook Promise would strive to provide answers.

Cox met with some resistance, from the families and others, as he worked to put together the organization.

“Not everyone wanted to be involved,” Cox said. “For many people, the idea that we even created an organization is a constant reminder of their loss. They don’t want that.”

Mark Barden, on the other hand, knew immediately he wanted to be involved. Meeting Rob Cox and understanding the depth of his commitment confirmed his decision.

“He’s one of those people I just connect with and bonded with in a lot of ways,” Barden said. “Anyway, this organization they put together in the desperation of needing to do something has been like a life raft for me. My salvation has been being able to be part of this.”

Initially, Sandy Hook Promise ran into the buzz saw of partisan politics in Washington. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings, there were high hopes for a bill sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Va., which would have closed background-check loopholes for guns purchased online and at gun shows.

Barden said he was surprised to learn guns can be purchased legally online without disclosing any personal information.

“No one knows if they’re a felon, a gang member, if they’re mentally ill and want to kill somebody,” Barden said. “Can you do that legally? ‘Of course you can’t,’ I would have thought. Lo and behold, you can, because of that loophole in the background-check system.”

In the run up to the Senate vote on the Manchin-Toomey bill, Barden and others spent a great deal of time on Capitol Hill in closed-door meetings with senators, trying to determine their positions on the measure.

“I just thought that was low-hanging fruit, and yes, that’s absolutely something that should be addressed, and we all know what the rest of that story is,” Barden said.

On April 17, 2013, the Manchin-Toomey bill was defeated by a small margin.

After the vote, Barden and his family joined President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden, where Obama denounced the defeat as a “pretty shameful day for Washington.”

Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, which opposed the Manchin-Toomey bill, wrote in an email to the Burlington Free Press that the bill would “not have made Americans safer.”

“During Senate debate, the NRA supported and still continues to support substantive measures that will — including fixing our nation’s broken mental health system, increasing prosecution and punishment of criminals, and meaningful actions that will protect our children,” Arulanandam wrote.

In early discussions with the NRA, the politically powerful group had agreed not to oppose the Manchin-Toomey bill but then changed its mind, Rob Cox said.

“They decided to oppose it in the end, because as everything in our completely partisan political system now, the far right — gun extremists — were the tail wagging the dog,” Cox said.

The long haul

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SOURCE: Burlington Free Press – Dan D’ambrosio

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