Conn. shooting families balancing grief, advocacy
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — 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. He said the families are at varying stages of grief and recovery, and some may never want to discuss the issues.
"We're not here to represent or speak for the families," said Makris, whose son escaped the Sandy Hook shooting unharmed. "We're here to help and support the families when they're ready to move forward."
A gunman shot his way into the school on Dec. 14 and slaughtered the children and six women, then committed suicide as police arrived. He also killed his mother before driving to the school and carrying out the massacre.
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. A White House spokesman confirmed that but declined to name the group.
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 Biden, who is leading an administration review of gun safety laws. He said the group has never made statements that it is representing all 26 victims' families.
White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said the Newtown families will have the chance to share their views before President Barack Obama makes any decisions.
"There is no perspective more meaningful in this process than that of a parent who has lost a child," Lehrich said.
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. Some attended the meeting a week ago with Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman wounded in a 2011 shooting, who started a political action committee on gun violence with her husband a few days after visiting Newtown.
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 Blumenthal, a Democrat, said several victims' relatives have expressed strong interest to him in advocating for measures to reduce gun violence.
"I will welcome whatever role they choose to have," said Blumenthal.
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.
"It hasn't quite coalesced yet into some kind of united stand for gun control or more mental health services or whatever," he said. "But I think there is a core area that you are going to hear, that everyone can agree on that you will hear loud and clear from the families pretty soon."
Engel, of New Canaan, Conn., has been helping his cousin's family deal with inquiries and offers from outside groups, and they are not eager to enter the political fray.
"We're really not ready," he said. "We're just trying to figure things out."
Associated Press writers Pat Eaton-Robb and Allen G. Breed contributed to this report.