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Vigil honors Sandy Hook victims

Gun reform advocate urges community conversation on the one-year anniversary of school shooting

BRATTLEBORO—In the year since a gunman entered the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and slaughtered 20 students and six teachers, nearly 200 other children under the age of 12 in the United States were killed by guns, according to a recent investigation by Mother Jones magazine.

And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that figure has been consistent each year for the past decade. The average age of the victims is 6.

While the focus at last Saturday morning’s vigil at Pliny Park was remembering those who died at Sandy Hook, there was also resolve in trying to reach a day when gun violence is eliminated.

The vigil, sponsored by Gun Sense Vermont, was one of 26 vigils held around Vermont on Dec. 14. The Pliny Park vigil began at 9:30 a.m., the precise time on Dec. 14, 2012, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza walked into the Newtown school, armed with a semiautomatic rifle and semiautomatic pistols, and began his killing spree.

“We don’t want our society to be a place where something like this can happen,” said Ann Braden of Brattleboro, founder of Gun Sense Vermont. “We want to be a place where someone struggling will reach out to others for help, where people are willing to work together to solve problems, and where everyone does their best to live with kindness and gentleness.”

The pain of that day is still fresh for Braden, whose mother lives in Newtown. Yet she said it was the people of Newtown who have taken the lead in trying to prevent gun violence.

“What is amazing though is that out of that horrible tragedy real leadership came and miraculously it came from the people who were hurting the most — the Sandy Hook families,” Braden said. “They stood up and as much as they were grieving they said we can all come together and find a way to reduce gun violence.”

Braden said that the Sandy Hook families “are asking everyone to have the conversation about how to reduce gun violence” and that the hope is that conversation will start “with the things we all have in common, instead of starting from polarized points.”

Braden read the names of the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting while community members hung paper cranes on the Christmas tree in the center of the park. The bell at nearby Centre Congregational Church tolled.

Since its formation in March, Braden said, Gun Sense Vermont has grown to more than 2,000 members in 160 towns in Vermont.

“It’s been really inspiring to have so many people join,” she said after the vigil. “Newtown really was a turning point. It opened our eyes to how out of balance our society is and we can’t close them again.”

It may be an uphill battle.

The New York Times reported last week that of the 109 new bills passed by state legislatures since Sandy Hook, 70 eased gun restrictions. The Times also reported that gun rights candidates and causes raised $29.4 million in direct contributions to candidates, parties, and political action committees at the state and federal level, compared to $1.9 million raised by gun control advocates.

Vermont’s gun laws are among the most lax in the United States. It’s not illegal to carry a firearm in public places, except in a courthouse or on school grounds. Unlike many states, no permit is needed for concealed carry of firearms in Vermont. Earlier this year, Guns & Ammo magazine ranked Vermont in a tie with Arizona for the gun-friendliest state in the nation.

In the face of this, Braden is undaunted. She said that although the group doesn’t plan to advocate for any specific firearms legislation in 2014, she does hope to get Vermonters to start talking about the subject.

“The next step is conversation,” she said. “We need to take into account all perspectives. Democracy can be a messy thing, but more and more people are talking about the need to keep guns out of the wrong hands.”

Her optimism was summed up by the final thought she offered to the two dozen attendees at the vigil: “Let’s leave here today dedicated to strive for a better world that the Sandy Hook families have envisioned. Let them turn tragedy into transformation. Let’s help them make Newtown a place that is remembered because that is where real change began.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #234 (Wednesday, December 25, 2013). This story appeared on page A8.

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