Jessica Hill / AP

Guns in schools: In tragedy’s shadow, efforts for gun reform in Newtown

Grass-roots initiatives aim to keep the ball rolling on national efforts against gun violence

On Jan. 16, only about 20 minutes apart, shootings marred what would have been otherwise normal Friday evening basketball games at high schools in Mobile, Alabama, and Ocala, Florida. A student was shot and injured in each case; both survived. They were the 49th and 50th shootings at K–12 schools in the U.S. — calculated by Al Jazeera as incidents in which a gun discharges on school property and a student or teacher is involved but not police — since the December 2012 massacre of 26 children and staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. This is the sixth in a seven-part series examining the issues surrounding school shootings in the U.S. The other six parts took stock of where the gun control debate standshow defense measures could traumatize kidshow threat assessments are being used to prevent school violencewhy Georgia has seen the most school shootings since Sandy Hookwhy Massachusetts has the fewest guns deaths per capitaand where most gun violence against kids takes place.

In the two years since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the town has become home to one of the nation’s most progressive grass-roots movements to tighten gun laws and fight gun violence.

Last month, marking the second anniversary of the shooting, which claimed 26 lives, including 20 children’s, family members of the victims and one survivor took to a Connecticut superior court and filed suit against Bushmaster, the private company that produced the assault weapon used by Adam Lanza in his rampage through the school.

While he used a gun purchased legally by his mother, the suit argues that the company, its owner Remington and a local gun store where the weapon was purchased — now closed — were nonetheless negligent because the weapon had no legitimate civilian use. Despite a 2005 federal law protecting most gun manufacturers from suits in which their guns were used illegally, the plaintiffs argue that the sale of the weapon amounted to negligent entrustment, a legal doctrine that holds people accountable for selling products they know can cause injury.

The case is pending in federal court after moving jurisdictions, and its outcome is uncertain, but it is one of several Newtown initiatives thrust to the center of national efforts to achieve gun reform in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting.

Spurred by the Newtown experience, state efforts to strengthen gun laws have made Connecticut’s among the strictest in the nation. In 2013, Gov. Dan Malloy signed legislation that banned large-capacity ammunition magazines, expanded background checks and strengthened the state’s ban on assault weapons.

The failure of congressional efforts in 2013 to make the assault weapons ban and mandatory background checks federal law increased the desire of groups formed after the Sandy Hook shooting to solidify and expand gains made at the state level and counter the country’s well-organized and highly effective gun lobby.

“The focus of our attention is in the state,” said Rabbi Shaul Praver, who leads Congregation Adath Israel in Newtown, of his efforts to reduce gun violence. “We need to do that groundwork before we go back to D.C.”

“We’re approaching it in a variety of different ways,” he said, regarding the several areas of gun reform in which he is engaged through his work with other clergy in the community as well has his organization Global Coalition for Peace and Civility, which he founded not only to address gun violence but also to forge connections among diverse groups, including gun rights advocates.

One of the issues Praver is pressing is the use of smart guns, technology in development that would prevent a gun from being fired without sensing its registered user’s fingerprints. The hope is that such technology would prevent guns from being used by someone other than the proper owner. Thus far, only New Jersey has enacted legislation that would require the eventual use of smart gun technology after it comes to market.

Praver joined Don’t Stand Idly By, a coalition of clergy members that earlier this month gathered in Newtown to press the gun industry to find common ground on smart guns. “We have to have a civil dialogue. It’s hard to make friends and influence [the gun debate] with shouting,” he said.

Countering a lobby

That battle lines of that challenge, in turns out, even in a state predisposed to tough gun reforms, can be found just down the road.

“It’s pretty ironic that the trade association for the gun industry is located 3 miles from Sandy Hook,” said Po Murray, chairwoman of the Newtown Action Alliance, an all volunteer gun reform advocacy group, referring to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) in Newtown.

For her, the local and the national movements are inseparable. “We’re trying to make people aware that the gun lobby is in Newtown,” she said. Despite the disagreements, she said, “having the NSSF in our community is an opportunity to find common ground,” even if that has thus far proved elusive.

The NSSF did not respond to Al Jazeera America’s request for comment on this story.

Abbey Clements, a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary who survived the 2012 shooting, is active with Sandy Hook Educators for Gun Sense. She said the mission of the group, made up of other teachers who survived or were first responders to the attack, is to “[encourage] other educators to join the movement and share their stories” and to be a “cohesive voice.”

She said the group, which was formed after the 2014 Isla Vista shootings on the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, was mindful that there is great difficulty in getting victims involved with mass shooting to speak out about their experiences but that, done properly, “it can be very empowering, and I think it can make a difference.” She said the group’s challenge is how to publicize those experiences “in a meaningful and effective way.”

Clements said members are investigating Connecticut’s teacher retirement system in an effort to, if necessary, divest from plans that have investments in gun companies.

On that effort, the group is exploring efforts that have been undertaken at the national level by coalitions like the Campaign to Unload, of which Newtown Action Alliance is a member. The campaign has pressed hedge funds, money managers and retirement account companies to divest from gun companies, an effort that has seen investors shift millions of dollars out of funds with connections to gun manufacturers.

The ongoing local efforts reflect a broader shift in the gun reform community. “We shifted our focus … to [reforming] the states and corporate America” after the failure of stricter background-check legislation in the Senate in 2013, said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. She founded the organization — which counts among its members many in Newtown, including Clements — the day after the Sandy Hook shootings and said the scope of the national movement and interstate group coalitions in the fight for reforming gun laws did not exist before the shooting in Newtown.

The local and state efforts have given succor to the national gun reform movement. Murray said of Newton’s strong voice, “We need to continue to use it, to do something” at the national level.

“This is the start of a cultural shift, and I think we have more people on our side,” she added.

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