By Carolyn Milazzo Murphy
You might expect Mary Ann Jacob to be discouraged about gun control.
Five years after surviving the Sandy Hook School shooting massacre by locking herself and 18 children in a storage closet, Jacob is dismayed by the number of school shootings, but believes history will show Sandy Hook was a major turning point in the gun control fight.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Jacobs said. “It’s going to take awhile, because we have to change a whole culture and its way of thinking. But I think when we look back in a generation, we’re going to see that Sandy Hook was the major turning point.”
Jacobs attended a screening of the acclaimed 2016 documentary Newtown Wednesday night at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport to highlight the importance of citizens, particularly women, in the gun control fight. The event was co-sponsored by the HHC journalism department and NOW’s Connecticut chapter.
I fixed my eyes on Jacobs, a library aide at Sandy Hook at the time of the shooting, as she fielded audience questions after the film. Dressed stylishly in a teal blouse, black sweater and slacks, and composed, she shows no outward signs of surviving the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
She has no medals to show her bravery, no purple heart to show the deep psychological wounds she suffered when 20-year-old Adam Lanza burst into the school on Dec. 14, 2014, killing 20 first-grade students and six staff members before killing himself.
But like her hometown, Jacobs was forever changed that day. She’s a survivor and a hero, shepherding 18 children to safety. And after walking around for months shell-shocked and just trying to get through the day, she and other Newtown survivors, relatives and friends emerged with a mission: tougher gun laws to prevent future tragedies.
Jacobs and other Newtown teachers and staff didn’t think they could return after the shooting, and hiring substitute teachers and aides was considered. But they decided if parents could put kids on the bus and kids could come to school, they could return too. And they did, setting up a makeshift school in the next town. Jacob said not much learning took place for about three months after the shooting, noting everyone just tried to get through each day.
She noted a rough winter blessedly led to many snow days, sparing the school from regimented weeks. Ordered, regular schedules were the last thing the kids or staff needed. They just needed to be together and heal as best they could.
“There wasn’t one week until about May where we had five days of school in a row, and that was such a relief because I don’t think we could have survived five consecutive days of school,” she said.
Though mounting gun violence makes us feel helpless and afraid, Jacob said we can and must do more. In the wake of the Parkland, FL., school shooting, three times as many calls supporting the NRA are coming into lawmakers as those supporting gun control. If you want to make a difference, Jacobs said, you’ve got to speak up and make your voice heard. You can’t expect others to do it for you.
“Don’t be a slacktivist, someone who doesn’t do anything,” she said. “This problem is not going to disappear. If there’s going to be change, it’s going to have to be a grassroots, bottom-up effort.”
It’s true. Connecticut chapter NOW president Cindy Wolfe Boynton was expecting a standing room only crowd given the timing of the screening. Just weeks after gun control rallies in Washington, D.C., and around the country mobilized the movement, Boynton expected to build momentum, particularly among women.
But about half the seats were empty, evidence of good intentions, but complacency. When I asked if a friend who had indicated she was attending was there, Boynton shook her head. “Not here,” she said. “Everyone always says they’re coming, but . . .”
Though Newtown is heartbreaking with its stories of lost children, shattered families and beautiful community crushed by a crazed gunman, you’re struck by the love and resilience of the community. Parents like Mark Barden and Nicole Hockley of the Sandy Hook Promise, who work tirelessly for tougher gun laws. Loved ones like Bill Sherlach, whose wife Mary, the school psychologist at Sandy Hook, was one of the victims.
Co-founder of the Sandy Hook Promise, Sherlach said he’ll never stop fighting for tougher gun laws because he owes it to his wife, who worked at the school for 18 years and loved the kids. Though progress is slow, he said he’s heartened by a Sandy Hook Promise program in schools that teaches children and teachers to look for signs of potential problems in students – alienation, isolation, poor communication and socializing skills – prevent potential disasters.
“We’ve got to look out for each other, and we’re teaching kids and teachers to notice signs,” he said. “I know of at least three shootings that were thwarted because of this program.”
All positive signs, but not nearly enough. I dreaded watching Newtown, but I’m glad I did because it’s motivated me to get more involved in the gun control movement. I’ve been as big a slacktivist as anyone else. It’s not only time to get involved, it’s long overdue.
Carolyn Milazzo Murphy is blog editor.