—Nicole Hockley, Managing Director of Sandy Hook Promise and mother of Dylan Hockley, one of 20 first-graders murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
After 4-year old Colin Holst drowned in an Austin swimming pool in 2008, his parents channeled their grief into advocacy by founding Colin’s Hope. The charity’s mission is to prevent the kinds of all-too-common water accidents that took young Colin’s life. In 2016, Colin’s Hope claims to have raised $80,000, engaged the services of more than 2,500 volunteers, given swim lessons to more than 600 Austin-area preschoolers, and donated 150 life jackets to loaner stations at area lakes. Colin’s Hope is at once a community resource, a vehicle of mourning, and a memorial to a little boy’s life.
Colin’s Hope is an uncommonly successful example of a certain genre of philanthropy: advocacy organizations originating from the experience of parental bereavement. The performance of philanthropy is a healthy and often-necessary form of grieving, allowing parents to honor, remember, or atone. By imparting meaning to otherwise inexplicable loss, it can even become a means of emotional survival. From a community standpoint, organizations like Colin’s Hope marshal the moral authority of bereaved parents to save, educate, and heal. The impulse to extract grace from tragedy—to spare others from similar pain— is a definitionally human, and humane, trait.
Perhaps for that reason—in the public sphere at least—parental bereavement was once generally held as sacrosanct; beyond question even when it came into contact with politics. But in December of 2012, the murder of 20 children and 6 teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School pitted the custom of deference to parental grief directly against America’s maniacal fixation with firearms. The shocking viciousness by which the latter triumphed over the former compounded the nation’s collective trauma in Sandy Hook's aftermath.
Within days of the shooting, conspiracy theorists were skulking around the grounds of the now-shuttered elementary school with video cameras, trying to prove that the massacre was a hoax. Blog posts claimed that it had been a “false flag” operation staged by the federal government to promote gun safety laws. YouTube videos, questioning whether the victims had ever existed, rocketed to millions of views. By early January, 9/11 “truther” and Infowars founder Alex Jones had turned his website into a clearinghouse for all manner of Sandy Hook conspiracy theories, including a post alleging that Sandy Hook Elementary had been a recruiting center for the Church of Satan.
The families of the slain began receiving anonymous calls and emails questioning the reality of the massacre; threatening them with reprisal for being related to the murdered children. They were doxxed, and their addresses, phone numbers and other personal information became public information. This happened to many people, regardless whether or not they became involved in groups like Sandy Hook Promise which, much like Colin’s Hope, sought to mitigate the tragedy by training students and teachers to identify the behavioral warning signs of potential gun violence.
For two years, the Newtown was besieged by outsiders hoping to blow the cover off the supposed conspiracy behind the most deadly attack (so far) to take place in an American elementary school. Sightings of conspiracy theorists—their cameras creepily trained on Newtown children—became so common that a group of local fathers organized themselves to keep tabs on the interlopers.
The National Rifle Association did not question the fact of the shooting. Instead, Wayne LaPierre tacitly blamed the school’s administrators—some of whom died protecting students—for inadequately preparing their schools for armed combat. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he famously intoned. LaPierre’s non-sequitur became a mirthless punchline in the mainstream press. But second amendment absolutists adopted it as a motto, and the NRA quickly turned it into a branding opportunity. For $19, LaPierre's organization will gladly sell you a t-shirt with his words, an image of a handgun, and the NRA logo emblazoned on front and back.
The immediate effect of this twin-pronged attack on the Newtown victims and their families was to stymie the handful of Sandy Hook-inspired gun reforms in congress, including proposed universal background checks. But the long term impact was arguably more damaging still. The intimidation campaign against Newtown effectively narrowed the boundaries of safe discourse in the aftermath of subsequent mass shootings, particularly for those most directly affected. It represented the social disenfranchisement of parental and community grief (h/t Kenneth Doka).
After Sandy Hook, victims and surviving relatives of gun massacres know that their experiences of violence and trauma no longer confer authority or privilege. They know that the only universally acceptable way to mourn their losses is in the dissembling vernacular of “tragedy,” which distorts gun violence into something inscrutable and inevitable, and negates all agency or responsibility for stopping it. Now is not the time to talk about how or why they died, our president’s press secretary presumes to tell them. Thoughts and prayers must suffice.
They know now that if they pursue healing through advocacy—particularly if they dare to suggest that gun violence is preventable—they will face savage emotional abuse. They will be slandered, gaslighted, projected upon, and intimidated. They know that few will rise to their defense, because after all, they are the ones “politicizing the tragedy.” Even if they say nothing at all, the mere fact of their victimhood is an implicit reproach to American gun culture, which renders them suspicious until they prove otherwise. After Sandy Hook, families of mass shooting victims are increasingly expected to actively abet the fiction that their loved ones died of something incomprehensible, instead of just another angry man with a gun.
The rest of us have apparently largely accepted the emotional disenfranchisement of mass shooting survivors and their families as a natural feature of our political discourse. The results of the post-Sandy Hook campaign of intimidation are visible in the muted reactions to the ever-more spectacular acts of gun violence that have taken place in the years since. In the wake of the October Las Vegas shooting that left 58 people dead, media bully and abuser Alex Jones gets high-profile TV treatments, even as he insists that it—like Sandy Hook—was "as phony as Obama's birth certificate." Meanwhile, one pro-gun control commentator helplessly concludes that the gun debate has become so toxic that it's pointless to discuss it further.
But denying the voices of mass shooting victims and their families because you don’t think their words are politically productive is cowardice. Failing to confront people like Alex Jones because you are afraid of conflict with them only serves to sanction their emotional disenfranchisement of the already-bereaved. We have allowed these people to marginalize an increasingly common manner of death in America because it might infringe on their hobby. We have surrendered the terms of our public discourse to the vilest among us.
As long as American children continue to be killed by guns, their families will seek to spare others from similar pain by trying to stem the spread of deadly weapons. To trample on this humane impulse, as the Sandy Hook hoaxers have done, is cruel and depraved. Even if you don't believe in gun control, stand up for the right of the victims of gun violence to disagree with you. Stand up for their right to mourn.