By JESSE LEAVENWORTH, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
7:12 PM EST, December 27, 2012
Newtown United was born in the agony and confusion that followed the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The group of residents, including parents of children who survived, held its first meeting two days after the shooting as news teams from around the globe scrambled for reaction to the killings.
Group leaders are working to ensure that Newtown United grows and gains power long after the news trucks leave. Before the week was over, leaders had formed an executive team and started the process of becoming a nonprofit organization. Some members had gone to Washington to speak against gun violence.
The group, organizers said, will use the traditional media, social media, outreach to churches, schools, government agencies and all other avenues to make "Newtown" a rallying cry against gun violence.
"We are just a few concerned citizens with day jobs trying to ensure that what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary marks the high-water mark for gun violence in this nation," Newtown United spokesman Rob Cox wrote in an email. "Ultimately we hope to provide a platform for the voices of the families most affected by this horrific event."
Many around the nation have offered help. The "outpouring," Cox said, "from people, companies, advertising and PR firms offering their pro-bono services and expertise has been absolutely overwhelming."
Cox said the group likely will hire a paid staff, with headquarters in the Sandy Hook section. The group has a mission statement: "We stand with the children, the families, the teachers and the community touched by the massacre of innocent lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14. We are united with the country to drive national efforts to turn the tide on gun violence. We are dedicated to ensuring the senseless act of violence that occurred in Newtown is never repeated."
The organization of many volunteers, however, is still a work in progress.
At a recent meeting at the Booth Library on Main Street, the passion, energy and anger in the audience was palpable. But the group's purpose was not clear to many. People asked what Newtown United is and what is its message.
"We are flying by the seat of our pants," Lee Shull, one of the original organizers, acknowledged.
"It's time to push!" one man said.
"We're being too nice," said another, who described himself as a New York City transplant.
There was talk of banning all guns, but Shull said that would raise a wall with responsible gun owners and stifle the group's broad goal of sensible reforms.
"We can't demonize gun owners," he said. "Let's face it — guns are part of our culture."
Another man who has emerged as a prominent voice in the group is Andrei Nikitchyuk, an immigrant from the Ukraine whose 8-year-old son, Bear, was in the school hallway when Adam Lanza burst in and started shooting. A teacher pulled Bear and another student into her room.
"I think that many people will help us," said Andrei Nikitchyuk, who works in finance for a large information technology company. "What we have now is an outrage, and we are trying to translate that … shellshock into something positive."
"We have inexhaustible resolve," the 47-year-old father of three said, "and we as a group just need to channel it to change the world."
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and and Sen.-elect Chris Murphy attended the meeting Dec. 19 and advised the group to feed the fire while public sentiment is strong and raw.
"There's been a seismic change in the public consciousness and the political landscape," Blumenthal said.
He and Murphy will use the nation's sorrow and resolve for change to fight for a ban on assault weapons, more comphrehensive background checks and other gun control measures, Blumenthal said. But he told the people packed into the library's community room that they, too, will have to fight. The gun lobby and its supporters in Congress, Blumenthal and Murphy said, are waiting for the spotlight on Newtown to fade.
"We're going to need your courage and strength," Blumenthal said.
The message from political leaders and others, Cox said, "has become very clear — act now, grow your numbers, get to Washington."
But the question remains — can another mass shooting be prevented? After all, Sandy Hook Elementary School was locked on that horrific morning; Lanza shot his way in. The National Rifle Association has called for armed guards in every school.
"I will say I feel safe in Sandy Hook and in Newtown," said Len Strocchia of Newtown, whose daughter, now 13, attended Sandy Hook Elementary School. "I think the school was safe. I don't think there's much you can do to stop somebody hell-bent on entering a school and committing murders. I would not want an elementary school turned into a bulletproof prison for our kids."
Gratitude is the overwhelming sentiment among all Sandy Hook Elementary parents whose children survived the massacre. Eric Weiss said his son, a second-grader, was in a classroom near one of the rooms where children were killed. The boy listened to his teacher and escaped unharmed.
"We're forever in their debt," Weiss, who also has a daughter in afternoon kindergarten, said of the school staff. "You can't ask more from somebody. You put your children in someone else's custody, you would hope they would react the way our teachers did."
"I'm just very appreciative that my children are with me," he said.
The voices of parents whose children were killed would be a powerful addition to Newtown United, but Cox said it's too early to approach them.
"We are here for the families," said Cox, the editor of Reuters' financial commentary website, Breakingviews.com. "We're building a structure and a platform for the families when they are ready to express their views about how to meaningfully reverse the tide of gun violence."
"We know," he said, "that our pain is nothing compared with theirs, so we can focus our energy to make Newtown count for something."
Newtown United members sign communications to each other with the letters FTF, "For the Families."
Visit the group's facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/NewtownUnited.
Copyright © 2014, The Hartford Courant