Newtown families deliver a message to Congress
Washington — On their second day of marking six months since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Newtown Action Alliance started out on the lawn of the Capitol in a protective clump around the Soto siblings.
At a lectern, a dark cloud cover rapidly moving in over the city, Carlee Soto, 20, began reading the names of those killed, 26 in all. Her voice broke on only one: "Victoria Soto, age 27, was murdered in her first-grade classroom on Dec. 14, 2012 ..."
The three siblings — Carlee, flanked by Carlos Mathew, 15, and Jillian, 24 — joined 32 members of the alliance Thursday to continue lobbying congressmen for stricter gun control legislation.
The alliance is one of many advocacy groups, along with the families of the Sandy Hook victims, that have descended on Washington to mark the halfway point to the first anniversary. It's a group comprising mostly Newtown residents, largely politically passive before the event that changed their lives and galvanized them to act in the name of their friends, family and neighbors, and their own pain.
They arrived Wednesday armed with packets containing the signatures of 80 organizations and lists of every American gun death since Newtown, asking senators to resurrect April's failed background checks legislation and House members to co-sponsor their version.
They continued their divide-and-conquer strategy on Thursday, splitting up among different congressional office buildings. In most cases, the door-knocking got them a few minutes with an aide or adviser or intern, if they were lucky.
For a group headed by Po Murray, one of the alliance's two vice chairmen, a long sit-down with Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., presented a new challenge: a congressman who refuses to co-sponsor the bill not because he disagrees with it, but because it's not enough. He wants a gun registry.
A riled-up Murray fired back: The group's tactic is baby steps — the only way to move forward.
"Do you have support for a gun registry?" she asked him.
"We have some support," he said, emphasis on "some."
"That's what we're struggling with," Murray said.
After a day and a morning of lobbying mostly elusive or noncommittal congressmen, the group was joined in the Capitol building by its most prominent allies: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Connecticut Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy; Murphy's successor, Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, whose district includes Newtown; and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., who co-authored the House version of the background checks bill that foundered two months ago in the Senate.
They were also joined by Connecticut Congressman Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., who was shot along with former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson in 2011.
It was a nearly hourlong offering of vows never to give up, often punctuated by members of the group wiping away tears. At one point, Pelosi stepped forward to the front row to embrace Teresa Rousseau, whose daughter Lauren Rousseau was one of the teachers killed at Sandy Hook, and stepped back to hold Rousseau's face in her hands.
Reid, who mentioned his father's suicide with a pistol, said legislation that requires background checks for all gun purchases — and not a "watered-down version," he said — is inevitable.
"The writing is on the wall," he said. "Background checks will pass the United States Senate. It's only a question of when."
Reid promised that efforts to resurrect the legislation that failed in April are getting "close," and that there are Republicans who are privately coming around to offering their support.
Blumenthal thanked the families of Newtown for reliving their grief in the name of advancing their cause, and urged all congressmen — particularly members of the Senate — to meet with them.
"Some of them have closed their doors or turned their backs," he said, chastising his colleagues.
Blumenthal and the others reiterated several times the polls that say 90 percent of Americans agree with background checks, and he added that it is groups like the Newtown Action Alliance that will "turn the tide and carry the day."
"We don't need converts among the American people," he said. "We need converts in Congress. We need activists among the American people."
Murphy vehemently carried on with Blumenthal's anger at their colleagues and said the reason this legislation will get a second chance is because of the "indomitable spirit" of the families of Newtown who have "refused to take no for an answer."
"It is absolutely unconscionable that there are members of the Senate and members of the House who will not meet with these families. Have the guts to take a meeting. Have the courage to look these families in the eye and tell them 'no' personally," he said. "Because if you take the meeting, if you hear their story, and if you hear their plea, then there will be something unlocked in your heart that will get you the 'yes.'"
By the time the group got back outside, heartened by the show of support, the clouds had passed. In full view of the Capitol building, along with dozens and dozens of other activists clad in matching green T-shirts, they formed a "ribbon of remembrance," recreating at human scale the tiny pins many had donned on their lapels.
All at once, they raised their hands in the air, waving at the cameras snapping photos and, yards away, up the steps, behind the stone walls and in the comfort of their offices, their elected officials.
Before returning to Connecticut to be at home today, the day that means six months have officially passed with no move from Congress, the Newtown Action Alliance would spend the rest of the afternoon on the same frustrating path, often being shut out and shuffled off.
But this is the work they'd come to do, and so they would do it. It's all about those few minutes of face time, Murray said, no matter the face, to try to turn some hearts.
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