Newtown families balance grief, advocacy

Saturday January 12, 2013

HARTFORD, Conn. -- If and when they choose to speak out, few will have more powerful voices in the national gun-control debate than the families of the Newtown shooting victims.

Since their loved ones were killed in last month’s elementary school massacre, the families have met with former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and many have been in touch with local groups created in response to the tragedy. While one mother is clamoring for a say in Washington, people close to other families say the pain is still too raw to enter the realm of advocacy.

"Our family is not looking to make a political statement. It is not looking to change the world," said John Engel, whose cousin’s daughter, Olivia Engel, was among 20 first-graders killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. "Our family has been focused entirely on getting through the next month."

As the families weigh whether and how to get involved, they are feeling their way through a swirl of offers and invitations. It is a confusing time even for those looking to contact those affected by the tragedy, including White House officials, who have been reaching out through a grass-roots group in Newtown.

The group, Sandy Hook Promise, was formerly known as Newtown United. It said Friday that it has invited victim family members to an event next week to unveil an initiative to prevent similar tragedies. A co-founder of the group, Tim Makris, said he doesn’t have a count of how many families might participate.

A gunman shot his way into the school on Dec. 14 and slaughtered the children and six women, then committed suicide as police arrived.

One 6-year-old victim’s mother, Veronique Pozner, said Thursday that she wondered why she hadn’t received more information about legislative proposals regarding guns in the weeks after the shooting. Her brother, Alexis Haller, said the family has ideas to share and wants to be part of the discussion about the response to the tragedy.

Haller said an assistant to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told him that the White House had been trying to consult with the families but that their efforts were rebuffed by a group purporting to speak for them.

Makris said his group has been talking with the vice president’s office for a week, and as recently as Friday morning, about setting a meeting between the families and Bi-den. He said the group has never made statements that it is representing all 26 victims’ families.

As a group, the victims’ families have held a few get-togethers, but it has been more typical to talk in small groups of two or three.

Newtown’s first selectman, E. Patricia Llodra, said the town is planning private gatherings with the families to hear their thoughts on what should be done with the Sandy Hook school building.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blum-enthal, a Democrat, said several victims’ relatives have expressed strong interest to him in advocating for measures to reduce gun violence.

Newtown clergy have been working with some of the families on how to respond politically, Rabbi Shaul Praver said, but ideas about what should be done are not clear at this point.


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