HARTFORD, Conn. — Are we really any different, one year after Newtown?
Certainly Connecticut has grown more fearful, less confident and more sharply divided. Yet people are also more optimistic and more politically organized. If anything, we are more conscious of a world we can’t control. A mass shooting in your suburban backyard will do that.
Take Milford Superintendent of Schools Elizabeth Feser, who had no personal connection to the events of Dec. 14 — except that she’s an educator in Connecticut. She can’t walk into a school classroom without thinking about Sandy Hook.
“We are about kids and learning,” Feser said when we talked recently. “But you walk into a classroom and see the young faces and you have to worry about them in a way you never had to worry before. It’s just different and it has become our reality.
“It has made me so much more conscious. And it has made me know that I’m that much more vulnerable. We can do everything we possibly can, but sometimes it is out of our hands,” Feser said.
It would be easy to point to the continued shootings in the past year, including another one Friday at a high school in Centennial, Colo, or the incessant conflict over gun control or the continued failure of Congress to respond in any meaningful way to a national outrage like Sandy Hook and say, well, it’s all just the same old, same old.
But you would be missing something significant.
Our governor says he is a more focused, compassionate politician. Connecticut’s new U.S. senator — Chris Murphy is the Senate’s youngest member — represents a state of 3 million, but weighs his success or failure on the views of the families of 26 constituents. In Newtown, meanwhile, I found a pastor who has had to rethink his own sense of compassion.
In the tender aftermath a year after Sandy Hook, Connecticut is a changing place, if not yet changed.
With gun control, a united Legislature in Connecticut took the sort of dramatic action matched by barely a handful of other states. But in some cases — such as with mental health — there remains much talk, yet little real action.
“Has something really changed? I don’t think we have an answer yet. We have a lot of conversation or dialogue about mental health,” said Harold I. Schwartz, psychiatrist-in-chief at Hartford Hospital’s Institute of Living and a member of the governor’s Sandy Hook Advisory Commission. “For an actual patient or a family today trying to get treatment, I can’t think of any way it’s different.”
It is what the Rev. Matthew Crebbin of the Newtown Congregational Church calls the “push and pull” of the year after Newtown.
Some, like Mark Barden, whose son Daniel died last Dec. 14, believe that a hard part of the past year is that we don’t really know exactly what is changing.
“What I thought wasn’t progress, really was progress,” said Barden, who introduced the president at the memorable White House press conference last summer after the Senate rejected a bill expanding background checks for firearms. Since then, he says he has become energized over the possibilities that he sees.
“This is about changing the national conversation. It is about changing our culture. That is not going to happen in a couple of months,” said Barden, who now leads a national organization trying to reduce gun violence.
Before last Dec. 14, Crebbin told me that as a pastor, he thought he understood patience and compassion.
“If you asked me 13 months ago, was I as patient as I am now? Probably not. Did I understand the depths of compassion the way I do now?” said Crebbin, the Newtown pastor who was at the Sandy Hook firehouse when parents first learned about the deaths of their children. “There is just no way you understand unless you have gone through an experience like this.”
Like others close to the tragedy, Crebbin sees an uneven work in progress.
“There have been extraordinary acts of kindness and patience and compassion. At the same time, there are definitely — because of the anxiety and frazzled nature and the reality of the trauma and grief — there are definitely emotions that put people on edge. There is a push and pull there. I would not want to suggest to gloss it over.”
A year ago an obscure Connecticut advocacy group called the Connecticut Citizens Defense League had a few thousand members. In the past year the gun-rights group has added nearly 10,000 members. These folks are angry, but because they believe too much has been done since Dec. 14.
“We are less free,” said Scott Wilson, the group’s president, when asked what’s changed in his home state.
“People are starting to realize that you don’t throw away the rights of individuals because of the acts of a single madman,” Wilson said. “The state of Connecticut has blanketed its residents and citizens with a false sense of what they tried to foster as security and public safety. No part of the law that was passed this year would have stopped somebody like Adam Lanza.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Murphy, who was just weeks from becoming a U.S. senator when the shootings took place and who since has become a leading voice for tougher gun control.
“I never thought that my sense of satisfaction with my job performance would be connected to what a handful of people think about me,” Murphy explained when I asked how he has changed in the past year.
“But the reality is I am very emotionally connected to those families and to what they are going through. It matters to me that they believe they have got a ferocious advocate fighting for them in Washington.”
Two days after the wrenching moment when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had to tell family members that their children were dead, the governor stood in a classroom at Newtown High School waiting to meet again with the Sandy Hook families.
“The president turned to me and said, ‘Hey Dan, would you and your wife and the first selectman go ahead of me because it’s going to take me a while to get through the five classrooms.’ I had a bit of a panic attack,” Malloy recalled. “Because I knew that I was the guy who told these families that they were not going to be reunited with their families and I was afraid they were going to blame me for having done that.
“Going from room to room that day that Sunday was life changing and reassuring to me that I was doing the best job I could under difficult circumstances and I was actually helping people, it was the first moment of relief that I’d had since Friday morning at 10 o’clock.
“I don’t think anybody who went through or who played an active role on Dec. 14 is the same as they were on Dec. 13,” Malloy said.
“It wasn’t just the 14th. It was the 14th and the 15th and the funerals starting on that Monday and everything that has transpired since, including the battle with the gun industry.”
Newtown, “has affected the way I do my job,” Malloy said. “It is affecting everything I do.”
We’re different a year later because Newtown is a part of us now. You can see it all over, when a teacher or walks into a classroom to the acts of kindness Newtown families are encouraging to the state Capitol, where a bitter debate over access to 911 tapes and crime scene pictures unfolded during the last year.
What’s changed, said state Sen. John McKinney, is that this Newtown “consciousness” continues to resonate with powerful force across Connecticut.
“I don’t think in our state that will go away,” said McKinney, the Republican minority leader in the state Senate who has faced some of the sharpest criticism from gun rights groups.
“If I had the choice of trying to honor the wishes of those parents and to do that in exchange for my seat in public office, that’s a no brainer,” McKinney said. “I’m with those 20 people.”