NEWTOWN, Conn. — Too young to understand the violence that shattered the community he calls home, Patrick Colango, 4, buried his face in a stuffed golden retriever on the floor of Newtown High School’s gymnasium as mourners gathered Sunday evening in the wake of a national tragedy.
Over 2,500 Newtown community members and New England residents lined up outside the high school for the memorial service in commemoration of the 27 killed in Friday’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Few spoke as Newtown residents young and old filed out of the cold mist into the entrance of the school. The silence, broken only by the occasional cries of children held by their parents and siblings, served as a reminder of the trauma that no one in this tight-knit community ever expected to face.
The service, which included speeches from President Barack Obama, Gov. Dannel Malloy, and local clergy and community leaders, was at once an attempt to begin the process of healing and a call to action. After suggesting that a society is judged by how it cares for its children, Obama, noting that Friday’s mass shooting was the fourth of his presidency, asked if “we are meeting our obligations.”
“If we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no,” he said. “In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.”
As mourners emerged from the high school auditorium, many echoed the president’s sentiment, saying legal and cultural change is needed to prevent future acts of mass violence.
Some Newtown residents delved into the specifics of change that the president has thus far avoided. Andrei Nikitchyuk, whose children attend Newtown schools, told the News that the government should move immediately to ban semiautomatic weapons.
“We should have done it after Columbine. It’s overdue,” Nitichyuk said. “Guns are not toys, but adults like to play with guns like they’re toys. A malicious thought in one person becomes a malicious bullet, and those fly fast from semiautomatic weapons.”
In the coming days and weeks, Newtown residents and the nation at large will watch closely to see what, if any, steps federal and state officials take to tighten gun laws, support for which has steadily eroded in national polling over the past two decades. On Sunday, news sources revealed that in late 2011 the Justice Department shelved a series of proposals intended to mitigate the risk of guns falling into the hands of the mentally ill. The proposals were created in response to a mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz. in January 2011 that critically injured U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others.
The Newtown tragedy also stirred memories of last August’s shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc. in which a white supremacist killed six people before he was shot by the police. Nearly 70 members of the Garden State Sikh Association in Bridgewater, N.J. were among the mourners gathered at Newtown High School Sunday to demonstrate solidarity with a community broken by what Obama referred to in his address as “unconscionable evil.”
“This affects all of our kids,” said Jaskaran Singh, a member of Garden State. “We decided to come because in tragic times of grief, we wanted to take matters into our own hands and help the community of Newtown.”
While stricter gun control was a common refrain among those gathered, some stressed that the service was, above all, an opportunity for the Newtown community to mourn together.
“I really didn’t come for the president. I came to be with the teachers,” said Tom Mahoney, a lifelong Newtown resident who volunteers at Sandy Hook Elementary every Monday. Mahoney, whose grandson attended the school, said he personally knew all of the adults who lost their lives in Friday’s shooting.
Christopher Spalveiri, who lives four blocks from the school and whose children have all attended Sandy Hook, said that he came to the vigil with his wife Tara and daughter Rebecca to pray in peace with others. Spalveiri said that despite trying to pray all day, a bomb scare Sunday afternoon at his church, St. Rose of Lima in Newtown, prevented him from doing so.
Newtown resident Andrea Anderson, a mother of two boys in local public schools, said that she was hesitant to tell her children about the horrors that transpired at Sandy Hook and shielded them from the incessant news coverage, afraid that they would gain “a sense of not feeling safe in the world.” But in the aftermath of the shooting, Anderson realized that attempting to maintain a ruse of normalcy was futile.
“It’s hard living in town not to hear people talk, so we thought our son would feel empowered with some information, but not all the details,” Anderson said.
Volunteers from across the country have flocked to Newtown since Friday to reach out to the youngest members of the community.
Over 100 members of the American Red Cross parked vans outside the high school alongside trucks from the Sandy Hook Fire Department Sunday and handed out blankets, snacks and stuffed dogs to children. As Donna Morrissey, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, greeted the passers-by waiting in line Sunday evening with a compassionate smile, she said members of her team were “honored” to be able to serve the mental health and emotional needs of Newtown’s reeling community.
Less than 30 miles away in New Haven, public school officials sent a newsletter to parents on Friday regarding the safety of their children, offering advice on how to approach discussions of the shooting with them. New Haven Police Department Chief Dean Esserman stationed a police officer at every school and additional officers in the areas surrounding schools.
But as the national conversation turns to improving safety measures and preventing further senseless massacres, Anderson said that Newtown “did everything it could” and that the community should avoid promoting a culture of fear.
“If we manage everything on the basis of fear, we are not making the community better for our children,” Anderson said. “Rather, we need to think about what we can do to make people less fearful.”
Mirroring scenes repeated at vigils across the country in the past two days, mourners in Newtown hugged each other and gave blessings of peace as they left the school. Outside the auditorium where the president spoke, children took donated teddy bears piled waist-high against a wall before returning to the night’s cold mist.