— Speaking out for the first time since the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, parents of some of the children who were killed called Monday for a national dialogue on guns, mental health and school safety, in hopes of sparing other families the anguish they have endured.
"I'm Ana's mom," Nelba Marquez-Greene said at an emotional news conference inside a chilly gymnasium at Edmond Town Hall in Newtown. "On Friday, Dec. 14th, I put two children on the bus, and only one came home. I pray that no mother, father, grandparent or caregiver of children ever has to go through this pain."
Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, 6, was among 20 students and six educators killed in the rampage. On Monday, exactly one month later, her parents and relatives of several other victims joined with members of a group called Sandy Hook Promise, which is looking for ways to honor those killed by making communities safer.
"We have a responsibility to make something happen. We want Newtown to be remembered for change, not for this tragedy," said Tom Bittman, one of the founders of Sandy Hook Promise. "We want the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings to be recalled as the turning point, when we brought our community, and communities across the nation, together and set a real course for change."
But defining that change has proven difficult. Organizers of the group had hoped to quickly identify specific proposals that would reduce gun violence and make schools safer. But several said Monday that quick-fix solutions do not exist, and that real change would require a multifaceted approach fueled by a degree of thoughtful deliberation that has been lacking in politically charged debates.
"Our country has been stuck in a rut. We've all seen it," Bittman said. "We talk past each other. We repeat predictable rhetoric. We get hardened in our positions. We feel threatened, and we don't listen."
But the urgency of making progress this time was written on the pained faces of parents, who clutched photographs of the children they buried weeks ago, and winced as their spouses spoke of all they have lost.
Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan, 6, was killed, talked of instinctively reaching for her son's hand when she's walking through a parking lot, and still expecting him to crawl into her bed for "early morning cuddles" before school.
"It's so hard to believe he's gone," she said.
Jeremy Richman, whose daughter Avielle, 6, was killed, called for a deeper understanding of mental illness, and said he and his wife, Jennifer, had created the Avielle Foundation, to combine behavioral and biochemical mental-health research.
"With this foundation, it is our hope to honor our beautiful Avielle," he said, his voice breaking with emotion as he said her name, "and all the others that have fallen to such senseless violence."
David Wheeler, whose son Benjamin, 6, was among the victims, emphasized the responsibility the nation's 149 million parents have in finding solutions. He said that after the killings, he and his wife became intensely focused on being the best parents they can be for their surviving son, Nate.
"What we have recently come to realize is that we are not done being the best possible parents we can be for Ben," Wheeler said. "Not by a very long measure."
He called on all parents to ask themselves what commitment they are willing to make to keep their children safe.
During the news conference, which drew scores of journalists from across the country, Nicole Hockley and Nelba Marquez-Greene read the "Sandy Hook Promise" that the group is encouraging people to endorse. In part, it reads:
"Our hearts are broken; our spirit is not. … This is a promise to truly honor the lives lost by turning our tragedy into a moment of transformation, to be open to all possibilities … to have the conversations on all the issues, conversations where listening is as important as speaking. … This is a promise to do everything in our power to be remembered not as the town filled with grief and victims; but as the place where real change began." The full promise is available at http://www.sandyhookpromise.org/mission.
Organizers said they are emboldened by the outpouring of support from around the globe in the days and weeks after the shootings.
"We truly have millions of people who have responded. Millions of people who just want to do something," said Tim Makris, a co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise. "The genuine care that people everywhere have for each other and their desire to do something tells us that the goals of Sandy Hook Promise are within our reach."
The conversations the group is promoting will include a discussion of the thorny issue of gun control.
"Some of us who came together to start Sandy Hook Promise are gun owners. We hunt, we target shoot, we protect our homes, we're collectors, we teach our sons and daughters how to use guns safely," Bittman said. "We're not afraid of a national conversation … about responsibility and accountability. And the thing is: We know there are millions of people in this nation who agree with this."
While the group did not have specific proposals Monday, organizers said they intend to develop and promote specific recommendations that they will ask Americans to get behind.
"Doing nothing is no longer an option," Bittman said. "The bottom line is we must act. We can't let this happen again."Copyright © 2015, RedEye