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For gun-control activists, the cause is political — and personal

By Anne Bokma

Shortly before the third anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn., that claimed 26 people — 20 of them small children — 60 gun control activists board a bus in the predawn stillness of a December morning. They’re about to make the five-hour journey to Washington, D.C., where they plan to lobby their nation’s lawmakers to enforce stricter gun control legislation.

They are participating in the National Gun Prevention Sabbath Weekend, sponsored by Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, a coalition of more than 50 faith groups. The annual event includes a national vigil for victims of gun violence, a press conference on Capitol Hill and meetings with dozens of members of Congress to push for tougher regulations, including strengthening the national background check system, banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and prosecution of unlawful gun trafficking. The event also urges houses of worship to take individual action. More than 500 places of worship in 46 states participated last year.

Every passenger on this bus has been affected by gun violence. Tom Campbell’s father was shot in the head in a neighbourhood bar and died 51 years ago when Tom was 17. Every new shooting, he says, “opens old wounds.” Matthew Soto, 18, lost his sister, Victoria, who was slain while trying to protect her kindergarten students at Sandy Hook. Tyrek Marquez, 14, was caught in a crossfire and shot in the head during a street parade when he was seven; he suffers partial paralysis on the left side of his body. Gina McDade, who lived next door to the Sandy Hook gunman and whose son used to have playdates with him, is here too. “No one should have an arsenal of guns in their house like he had,” she says.

When they get to Capitol Hill they join with other gun control activists to deliver their message to 54 members of Congress. Some, like the staffer in Texas Representative Lloyd Doggett’s office, lend a sympathetic ear. Others, such as presidential hopeful Senator Ted Cruz, who has an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association (and received $36,000 in donations from the organization this year), will mysteriously “forget” about the meeting.

“This always happens,” says Sandy Phillips, while waiting impatiently in Cruz’s outer office. Her daughter Jessica was one of 12 people killed in a 2012 massacre in an Aurora, Colo., movie theatre. “They don’t want to say ‘no’ outright to meeting with us, so they just don’t show up.”

Later, at a press conference, Phillips is one of about two dozen people holding enlarged photos of their dead family members for the assembled media. Their stories are different but they share the same raw grief: their lives were turned upside down in the instant that it took someone to pull a trigger.

After the camera crews leave, these walking wounded mingle amongst themselves, knowing witnesses to what each other has been through.

Some argue they are fighting a hopeless battle against a powerful gun lobby and enabling politicians. But they are determined to soldier on and find comfort in each other.

“We lost part of our family and we’ve joined a fraternity we can’t resign from,” says Phillips. “There’s a lot of love here.”

Author's photo
Anne Bokma is a Hamilton-based journalist. Her column, "Spiritual But Secular," appears monthly in The Observer.
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