Sandy Hook Promise: There Will Be Change

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The Wheeler Family

Francine and David Wheeler and their sons, Nate and Ben, in 2012; Courtesy of the Wheeler Family

This week, we spent time with Francine and David Wheeler, parents of six-year-old Ben Wheeler, one of the 20 children and six educators shot and killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Francine and David moved from New York City to Newtown to raise a family somewhere safe. They could never have imagined that in that quiet place on a Friday morning, just days before Christmas, gunfire would take their younger son’s life.

The Wheelers’ courage and commitment deeply touched us. Since their son’s death, they have managed to cope with memory and hold together their lives — and the life of their surviving son, Nate — with uncommon grace. Along with other Newtown families, they lobbied the Connecticut state legislature — which now has the toughest gun law in America — and in Washington, they walked the halls of Capitol Hill, urging senators to vote yes for the amendment that would expand the use of background checks for people buying guns.

Although a majority favored the legislation, they fell six votes short of the 60 votes necessary for passage, but the Newtown families, friends and neighbors do not intend to quit. They are part of a growing nationwide movement committed to changing our gun culture. They call it Sandy Hook Promise. “America is in desperate need of a new path forward to address our epidemic of gun violence,” they write. And then comes the promise: “THIS TIME THERE WILL BE CHANGE.”

You want to believe with all your heart that this is one promise that will be kept. But arrayed against them are mighty forces, mountains of money, a corrupted political system, and habits deeply ingrained in the human psyche.

That Minnesota radio host who told the Newtown families “to go to hell” is hardly alone in placing his freedom to own weapons over a child’s right to live. The gun industry’s most conspicuous pitchman, Wayne LaPierre, is the walking embodiment of the sociopathic mentality, one radically devoid of empathy. His National Rifle Association spent $18.6 million on the 2012 elections and then at least $800,000 lobbying the Federal government in just the first three months of this year — pushing back against those like Sandy Hook Promise who have been calling for change after the Newtown massacre.

But Gregg Lee Carter, the editor of the encyclopedia Guns in American Society, told the Center for Public Integrity:

“The issue is not so much how much the NRA gives any senator or member of the House, it’s how they can make their lives miserable. And how they make their lives miserable is they e-mail ’em, they call ’em, they fax ’em, they show up at meetings… They’re much more activist than the other side and that’s what really produces their gains.”

As the NRA holds its annual meeting in Houston this weekend (expected attendance: more than 70,000), you see their tracks everywhere. A kindred, pistol-packing spirit, the Arizona Citizens Defense League has been raffling off an AR-15 semi-automatic at their website’s online store, similar to the weapon Adam Lanza used at Sandy Hook Elementary School. They’ve taken it down from their site now — when we first saw the offer, there were only five tickets left, so maybe it’s sold out, but here’s what the offer looked like (including the Statue of Liberty brandishing a rifle, Rambo-style).

A page, since removed, from the Arizona Citizens Defense League website, raffling off an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Click to enlarge.

That same group cheered on Arizona Governor Jan Brewer this week as she signed two pro-gun bills — one that prohibits local governments from keeping lists of people who have firearms – not them any of them were – and another that requires police to take guns that are voluntarily surrendered in buyback programs and instead of destroying them, sell them back to the public. That’s right: get them off the street and then get them back on the street as fast as you can. Perhaps they should install a drive-through window at the precinct houses.

Granted, this is in Arizona, where the OK Corral is hallowed ground (reenactment daily at 2 pm) and there’s even a TV station in Tucson with the call letters K-GUN, but the mindset pervades across the country, even as there have been eight school shootings since Newtown and more than 3,800 gun deaths. The killing field that is America never calls a truce. In Kentucky this week, a two-year-old girl was accidentally shot and killed by her 5-year-old brother who was playing with a rifle he had received as a gift. In Alabama, a stray bullet fired nearby killed a 24-year-old mother holding her 10-day-old baby in her arms. She fell onto a couch by the door still clutching her child.

Hold that image in your head and in your heart, so emblematic of a country that has taken leave of its senses. Remember all the dead from all the solitary shootings and all the massacres. Some senators suggest there may be another vote on background checks before the end of the year. If, as David Wheeler suggested to us, this is a tipping point for the movement against gun violence, the moment has come to push harder than ever.


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  • Jeremy Stickle

    Do you realize that if someone in that school would have been armed then they may have been able to force that murderer to surrender, or killed him before he could have pulled the trigger on a bunch of little kids sitting in their classrooms? My brother Jason was killed in a school shooting/ hostage situation on May 1st 1992, at Lindhurst High-school, Olivehurst, California, we just had the 21st anniversary. The person who killed my brother is still on death row, 21 years later. There is no justice when you just call 911 and let the cops handle it, they will get there 45 minutes and ten dead bodies later. Guess how long it takes to pull out a gun and protect yourself or the children at a school. Maybe instead of disarming American citizens, we should give the same protection to schools that we give courthouses and governors’ offices. Just the two cents from someone who has been through actual gun violence and dealt with the consequences for 21 years, not like I’m an expert or anything.

  • John Longo

    How much money have the Wheeler’s taken from Mayor Bloomberg to assuage their grief?

  • Anonymous


    I thought you were on the “freedom” side. Oh, well, no one’s perfect.

  • Anonymous

    It would certainly be nice if Americans had the liberty to walk down the street, go to school, and attend a movie without having to worry about encountering a mentally ill, ex-felon, or other irresponsible individual pulling out a gun they recently purchased.

  • Nancy Lee

    It is my understandng that with all the clips the gunman had at Sandy Hook, it was only a matter of minutes before the henious deed was completed. Someone with a gun would probably be too late to stop the carnage. It will take more than having every man, woman and child armed, to stop this senseless violence.

  • Uriel 238

    “May” being an operative word here. At least we’d know were Lanza’s first bullets would be headed.

  • Uriel 238

    Yeah, if only that could be done without marginalizing all us crazies (because you know only a tiny minority of us are potential rampage killers, and plenty of rampage killers were undiagnosed when they popped).

    And if only it could be done without marginalizing gun hobbyist, because, you know, there are other dangerous things we like to do. And there are unlimited ways someone with a mind to could kill a lot of people.

    And if only it could be done without a bevy of other moral panics such as the widespread fear of violent video games, even though the rest of the industrialized world plays the same games without sharing the US’s high violence rate. (Some nations also have lots of guns, yet few murders.)

    The restrictions in the new bills would not have changed the outcome of Adam Lanza’s killing spree.

    “Military style” weapons are no better for mass murders than civilian ones.

    Homicides (per capita) now are significantly lower now than when the “Assault Weapons” ban was in effect.

    We could VASTLY reduce gun violence by ending the War on Drugs. But that’s a sacred cow that no one dare mention.

    Rampage slayings are inevitable with or without guns, but they’re rare, and they happen world-wide. But we shouldn’t arbitrarily pass laws or sacrifice liberties every time one happens just because we’re desperate for a sense of control.

  • David E.

    The Wheelers were very touching on your program, but I’m afraid that preaching love to the congregation will have little effect on the thousands of gun deaths annually–nor will background checks and eliminating semi-automatic rifles. By coincidence, the following day’s OpEd in the Los Angeles Times, by David M. Kennedy of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is the best piece I have ever read on what has greatly lowered killings in cities and targeted neighborhoods. Needless to say, those places where most killings occur are not Newtowns, and coordinated programs by governments, police departments and social sevice agencies have had important effects that preaching love will not likely have, except understandably for the prachers and the converted. Kenney’s article should be required reading for every citizen.

  • sittingduck

    Gee, Bill, how about having someone on your show to explain that the right to bear arms is ours just for being human beings. The government did not “give” us the right to bear arms and neither did the Constitution. The Constitution is there to stop the government from taking away our “God-Given” (or human rights), including the right to bear arms. The Federal government is currently prohibited from infringing on our natural right to bear arms (for whatever reason) because the framers of the Constitution knew that the natural inclination of any and all governments they had seen was to progressively (or suddenly) take away the rights of their people and evolve into a tyranny of politicians or elitists who offer a very false “security” in exchange for permanent infringement or blocking of their human rights. (Notice I didn’t say removal, because the government can’t take the right away, they can only prevent people from exercising it) I do hope you can see, from history, how allowing your government to infringe upon one right, leads on to the next right, then the next. If our Government really wants to do something about mass shootings it should be concentrating on undoing the damage it has done over the decades to our Mental Health systems. That would even be easy legislation to get passed, I’d imagine, as long as the self-concerned politicians would leave out the pork and unrelated issues they try to insert into all legislation they think will make it through the system.

  • Taildraggerdriver

    It is interesting to me that Bill Moyers who every week describes the massive levels of corruption in our government doesn’t understand that he didn’t even address the issue related to the second amendment and why people defend their right own guns with no registration in his program. The advocates for gun control don’t understand that we who own guns in part own them to be sure that when our government becomes so corrupt we have guns to do something about it. The reason the second amendment exists is that the founding fathers understood Americans need to bear arms for just that reason to defend our freedom.

  • Bill Kennedy

    I am a great admirer of Bill Moyers, but this program left me wondering if my admiration may be misplaced. We can all have sympathy for the Wheelers, but they (and Peter Yarrow as well) seem a poor choice for Mr. Moyers program. Why not instead a real discussion of whether or not additional gun control legislation can actually do any good?
    I am not a gun enthusiast, but I know what an assault rifle is, as Mr. Moyers apparently does not. Using this inflammatory term to describe guns with a military appearance is a credibility-loser.

  • John Dyer

    Freedom is not just something we can reserve for ourselves: we have to extend freedom to others as well. In a free society, others will be allowed liberties that we may not approve of. This is a necessary consequence of living in a world where others exist. You don’t get the things you want without giving other people the things they want. It’s pretty simple. Mr. Moyers demonstrates that he does not understand this idea. To Mr. Moyers, his way is the only true way. Anyone who wants something different from what he wants is stupid, misguided, demented. Mr. Moyers wants liberty for himself and all of the protections offered by the Bill of Rights. But he would deny that liberty to others. I don’t respect that.

  • Nansi K

    In spite of much of the criticism below, I was struck mostly by the way the Wheelers conducted themselves, specifically Mr, Wheeler. We can sit in our living rooms, typing on our computers about our opinions about guns, legislation, and all things “rights” related. We frequently get loud, we often resort to name calling, and almost always posture in the self righteousness of our beliefs. Watching Mr. Wheeler, a man and a family that suffered a tragedy I venture to say none of us with these big opinions have suffered, or can even truly imagine, be so calm and forthright, quietly speaking his truth, is an example we should all be humble enough to learn from. He spoke from his heart, and although so very disappointed that legislation for something as simple as background checks can’t even get passed in our country, he was not angry. He continually went back to wanting more conversations, more opportunity to talk with those that agree with him, but mostly, with those that don’t. Repeatedly, he acknowledged that there are vast cultural differences between the two sides, but he rightly pointed out that there are significant similarities as well and he was not going to give up on them because those are the basis of understanding, His quiet resolve, his wife’s commitment to doing good in her community, and their commitment to a civilized, open, REAL discussion devoid of inflammatory rhetoric are the examples I will remember and do my best to emulate.

  • another Mother

    We need to do a “recall” and protest to have ALL Republican Congress members fired for NOT working for their constituents and just NOT working at all!

  • gopgfy

    gun owners immediately twist the call for background checks into a false
    argument to eliminate the 2A.. I have concluded many gun owners oppose
    bg checks because they realize they wouldnt pass one. wonder if la pierre would pass???