Bus tour commemorating Sandy Hook takes gun control on the road

William Holt
William Holt
The Lookout
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Six months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, victims’ families, elected officials and faith leaders gathered in Newtown, Conn., for the launch of a nationwide bus tour to step up the pressure on politicians for stronger gun-control laws and to commemorate those who were killed.

At the pretour ceremony on Friday morning, crowds gathered in front of Newtown’s Edmond Town Hall. There, a ticker counted the number of people killed by gun violence since the Sandy Hook shootings that claimed the lives of 20 students and six educators. When the ceremony commenced, that number was 6,003.

“Over 6,000 have been killed by guns in six months alone,” said Steve Barton, a survivor of the July 2012 shootings in Aurora, Colo., and a speaker at Friday’s ceremony. “More than 3,000 will be killed while this bus is on the road if we don’t do anything.”

Barton, who works with the nonprofit advocacy group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, also said, “Today’s a day of remembrance. Not just for the victims of Newtown, but for the 33 people who are killed every day by gun violence.”

Officially titled “No More Names: The National Drive to Reduce Gun Violence,” the bus tour was organized by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which was co-founded in 2006 by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

The 100-day tour will eventually travel through 25 states. While going cross-country, gun violence survivors and their family will press members of Congress to take another look at gun-control legislation and to reconsider April’s failed gun-control legislation in the Senate.

That legislation, called the Manchin-Toomey bill—named after its sponsors, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa.—would have extended background checks to all commercial gun purchases in the U.S. It failed 54-46 on April 17.

Among those present at Friday’s ceremony was Jillian Soto, whose older sister Victoria was one of the teachers killed at Sandy Hook.

“We wanted to do something about this issue, so that she wouldn’t have died for no reason,” said Soto of her sister. “We threw ourselves into the fight.”

After the failure of the Manchin-Toomey bill, Soto said she “started to feel discouraged. … But we’d had the conversation. That’s something we conquered, just to get there.”

Soto, who described the National Rifle Association and other gun rights organizations as “bullies,” said she would be joining the bus tour whenever she could manage. Of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, she said, “It’s an honor to know that you have this amazing group of people who aren’t willing to let people forget.”

While the morning was marked by somberness and grief, there was nevertheless a sense of resolve about getting gun-control legislation back into the Senate.

Gilles Rousseau, the father of slain teacher Lauren Rousseau, said he was there “to help with the cause. … It’s not asking for much, but that’s what we’re trying to do."

The same sense of mission was present when Carlee Soto spoke to the crowd. Carlee, the younger sister of Victoria and Jillian, asked the people gathered for a 26-second moment of silence at the start of the ceremony “to join with the 26 who have fallen.”

On Wednesday, the Soto sisters met with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in Washington, D.C., to discuss efforts in the push for new gun-control legislation.

“We went to Washington, D.C., to fight for our loved ones and fight for everyone else who’s been killed by gun violence,” said Carlee after the ceremony. “President Obama told us yesterday that this might not come in a week, next month or even a year. But he’s going to keep fighting and so are we.”

According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released just weeks before the Manchin-Toomey vote, 90 percent of Americans support expanded background checks on gun purchases.

“This is about common sense,” said First Selectman Ed Edelson of Southbury, a community just across the Housatonic River from Sandy Hook. “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.”

The bus tour will first head north to Concord, N.H., and Augusta, Maine. Locations in other states will be announced during the week of the stop.