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Sandy Hook Promise addresses gun violence by changing culture

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

Nicole Hockley

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Halfway through her opening statement on Wednesday’s edition of “Standing Our Holy Ground,” the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program’s year-long 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. And we have stopped multiple, multiple school shootings and suicide threats, and gotten a lot of help for kids from other forms of self-harm, abuse, substance abuse, and addiction — everything on the spectrum of violence and self-harm from, at the one end, bullying all the way to the other end of homicide or suicide.”

Click here to watch the full webinar with Sandy Hook Promise

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.”

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?”

Rev. Donald Gaffney

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.”

Gaffney, in particular, touched on the role of violence in the church, even in the very events Christians just commemorated over Holy Week.

“Certainly, that’s a part of my book, looking at violence in the Bible,” he said. “We can’t ignore it, and we can’t ignore violence in our faith. That means that we need to come to a different understanding, a deeper understanding about who God is.”

Hockley said that through her work with Sandy Hook Promise she sees a lot of hope. But she also sees a lot of work to do, like when she sees a student who says gun violence in her school is inevitable.

“As a parent, that breaks my heart that any child would think this is inevitable and that we adults are not doing enough to protect them,” she said. “That’s why we create our PSA, to try to give voice to the fears that kids have to try to spur the adults into action and realizing that we are part of creating this problem. However, we can very much be part of the solution as well.

“So, it’s the heartbreak that I don’t want more parents to be like me. And if I’m strong enough to use my voice, thankfully I will use it to help save others in the name of my son, because I know that this works. And I know about all the stories that you’re never going to hear about, because we have made the interventions and that’s what keeps us going.”

The next edition of “Standing Our Holy Ground: A Year-Long Look at Gun Violence and What the Faith Community Can Do About It” is “Get Your Guns: Why Americans Buy Firearms in Times of Pandemic.” The webinar looks at the rise in gun purchases during the COVID-19 crisis and features the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, Director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and Robert Hoggard, a pastor and doctoral student in Rochester, New York. Click here to register for the event at 3 p.m. April 30.

Give to the Peace & Global Witness Offering to continue the valuable ministry of the Peacemaking Program.


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