President Obama embraces Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son, Dylan,… (Charles Krupa / Associated…)
HARTFORD, Conn. – President Obama drew the families of the Newtown school shooting victims into an emotional call to pass gun control measures on Monday, urging that the displays of solidarity and grief in the aftermath not be the end of the country’s obligation to them.
After a private meeting with families of eight victims, Obama somberly recalled the attention the country paid to the students and teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary School after the December tragedy – and challenged listeners to support change he says will make things better in the future.
“I know many of you in Newtown wondered if the rest of us would live up to the promises we made in those dark days – if we’d change too; or if, once the television trucks left, once the candles flickered out, once the teddy bears were gathered up together – that the country would somehow move on to other things,” Obama said in an evening speech.
Afterward, 11 family members were expected to join Obama on his flight back to Washington to tell their stories to lawmakers trying to work out a compromise package meant to combat gun violence.
In Washington, the effort to expand background checks for gun buyers struggled for viability as senators returned from the Easter break. Obama’s press secretary on Monday downplayed the obstacles. “I wouldn’t want to cabin that issue as particularly problematic,” spokesman Jay Carney said.
It is problematic, however, as the staunch opposition of gun rights groups and some lawmakers is making clear. Democrats from conservative states are resisting the proposal and Republicans are threatening a filibuster.
At Obama’s speech at the University of Hartford basketball arena on Monday night, one gun rights activist roamed the crowd wearing in a T-shirt depicting a handgun, and also in a flag that read “Don’t Tread on Me.”
But Obama countered with an emotional appeal, repeatedly invoking the memory of the shooting victims. The crowd stood on its feet for the first third of the address, during which Obama named Rachel Davino, a recent Hartford graduate killed while working as a behavioral therapist at Sandy Hook.
The White House convinced Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son, Dylan, was killed in his first-grade classroom at Sandy Hook, to tell her story.
With her husband at her side, Hockley told how, on a school night just a few months ago, she would have been home making dinner and doing homework with both her sons.
Now, she said, she fights the regular impulse to give in to her grief over the loss of her son.
“There is no going back. For me, there is no turning away,” she said. “Do something before our tragedy becomes your tragedy.”
As the Senate turns back to gun control negotiations, the White House is planning a series of events to turn up the pressure.
On Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden meets with law enforcement officials at the White House to echo Obama's call. And on Wednesday, First Lady Michelle Obama will take part in a summit on youth violence in her hometown of Chicago.
Obama started the week in Hartford by pleading for support from the communities suffering through the Sandy Hook aftermath.
“If you’re an American who wants to do something to prevent more families from knowing the immeasurable anguish that these families know, now is the time to act,” Obama said. “Now is the time to get engaged, to get involved, to push back on fear, frustration, and misinformation. Now is the time to make your voice heard from every state house to the corridors of Congress.
“As soon as this week, Congress will begin debating common-sense proposals to reduce gun violence. "But Congress is only going to act on them if they hear from you – the American people.”
The crowd stood and thundered, “We want a vote! We want a vote!”
Many in the audience wore the Sandy Hook school colors, green and white, in memory of the victims.
Two of those in the crowd were Nancy Lefkowitz and Meg Staunton, mothers from nearby Fairfield who started a grass-roots group, March for Change, in the days after the Newtown shooting.
They turned out 5,500 demonstrators at the Statehouse to help press lawmakers to limit the size of ammunition magazines and require background checks on all firearm sales.
Now, the friends hope to pass stricter laws in Connecticut and help activists in other states to do the same.
Every Thursday night and Friday morning, they email their growing network of members and urge them to make calls and send emails to state, local and federal officials. The phones start ringing and emails hit inboxes at 9:30 a.m. on Fridays, the time of the Newtown shooting.
“The Newtown ZIP Code does have a big impact,” Lefkowitz said, “but we don’t have ownership of this. These were babies who were killed in Newtown. People everywhere are moved by that.”
In order to get Congress to take action, Staunton said, grass-roots activists have to keep the pressure on in their state legislatures. “That’s how we get federal change, is state by state,” Staunton said.
As Obama left the stage, one corner of the crowd started a chant that eventually swept the gym. "We are Newtown," they said.