Sandy Hook Promise addresses gun violence by changing culture


Members of the gun violence prevention group appear on Presbyterian Peacemaking webinar

August 4, 2020

Nicole Hockley

Halfway through her opening statement on a recent episode of “Standing Our Holy Ground,” the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program’s yearlong webinar series about how the church can respond to gun violence, Nicole Hockley of Sandy Hook Promise cited some extraordinary achievements by her group.

“The signs of impending violence are there if you know what to look for,” said Hockley, the managing director of the group. “So, we started creating PSAs and programs to teach people, teach students how to recognize signs in their peers, how to recognize them on social media, because the adults in their lives were not on the same platform as the kids. The kids are seeing things and they don’t really know what to do about it. They want to help.

“And we’ve had tremendous success since we first launched our very first program as a tip sheet in a church basement in Ohio. At the end of 2014, in the last several years since then, we’ve reached over 15,000 schools, we trained over 13 million adults and children on how to recognize these signs and take actions.”

That success, she said, came after a staggering failure.

Sandy Hook Promise was formed in the wake of the December 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 28 people died, including 20 children ages 5 to 7.

At first, the group went the route a lot of gun-violence prevention groups go: trying to pass legislation. But a few months later, a background check bill supported by parents of victims of the Sandy Hook massacre failed to pass the United States Senate, prompting then-President Barack Obama to say, “this was a pretty shameful day for Washington.”

It left Hockley, who lost her 6-year-old son Dylan in the Sandy Hook massacre, wondering what to do. Background checks, she said, were “low-hanging fruit” — a move supported by more than 90% of voters, but vigorously opposed by the National Rifle Association.

They embarked on a lot of study and a lot of listening to people to learn about the barriers to gun-violence prevention from a broad spectrum of stakeholders.

“When we looked at all of the polarizing issues that have plagued our country, you know, from the Civil War all the way up, we thought, ‘OK, these are things that we can learn from how to find common ground, how to change the narrative and focus on what’s important in a non-confrontational way that everyone can engage in and be part of,’” Hockley said. “And we coupled that knowledge with what we learned by studying other school shootings and mass shootings, about the fact that most people, before they commit an act of self-harm or violence towards others, tell someone else or give off a sign.”

Rev. Donald Gaffney

It is a long process, Hockley said, that starts a long time before someone picks up a gun to commit an act of violence, to create a culture that discourages that behavior and recognizes the factors that may foster it.

Moderator the Rev. Carl Horton, coordinator of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, observed similarities between the group’s approach and faith: “I think about faith formation, and we in churches do a lot of … upstream work with folks helping people learn what does it really mean to be a Christian? What is the Christian act like? What are the behaviors of Christians?”

But that doesn’t mean Christianity is monolithic in behavior or beliefs, even on issues such as guns and violence, as the Rev. Donald Gaffney, author of “Common Ground: Talking about Gun Violence in America(published by Westminster John Knox Press) and a Sandy Hook elementary alum, said.

“I have heard recently, particularly within my denomination, that we Christians are diverse but not divided,” the Disciples of Christ minister said. “And as such, we need to embrace that diversity at all levels. And so how do we how do we do that? It starts by listening respectfully. And as we listen, seeing Christ in the other person and acknowledging that that other person is beloved of God and is speaking in good conversation. Hopefully, we are vulnerable to each other.”

Rich Copley, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus:  Gun Violence

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Tamron Keith, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Stephen Keizer, Presbyterian Foundation

Let us pray:

Dear God, we thank you for leading us to love you in deed, truth and action. Help us to stem the flow of guns to those who should not have them. Help all people who love you to join to heed your call to end gun violence. Amen.

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