Jr. Newtown Action Alliance fights for the reduction of gun violence in America

It was a quiet December morning in a picturesque upper-middle class suburb of Connecticut. Then he shot over 150 rounds in less than five minutes and the idyllic peace was shattered. Six educators and 20 first-grade children lost their lives when those bullets ripped through them in Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The tragedy in Newtown horrified people in every corner of the globe. It also did something else significant to us… It forced opened our eyes to the reality of the epidemic of gun violence in America.

When we weren’t attending funerals and vigils, avoiding the crush of media that descended on our town, we were huddled at home cherishing our families and asking “why?” The media tried to answer that and in the pro-shock deepened. Prior to “12/14,” as we refer to it in town, we thought we were covered; effective OUR new reality was actually THE reality across the laws probably protect us and gun violence was country.

In the United States, there are a myriad of causes of gun violence. We do not profess to understand all of them, so one of our objectives is to discover and define the causes through active dialog and investigation.

Some obvious root causes include: easy access to firearms; an ineffective and incomplete system of determining whether an individual is qualified to be a responsible gun owner; and, insufficient criminal justice enforcement of existing laws.

Additionally there are the failings of our mental health system in identifying and treating individuals appropriately as well as providing timely and complete information to the NICS background check system, while finding a balance between civil rights and public safety in that reporting.

We also have an overwhelming exposure to violence in the media, including movies, television, and video games, that numbs us to the devastating effects of real-life gun violence; a culture of human empathy that is nearly non-existent; and, a significant lack of non-violent conflict resolution skills.
Mental Illness is a common thread in many mass shootings, but mentally ill individuals are more likely to be victims and only perpetrate about 4% of gun violence. “We don’t want to focus exclusively on gun control because it is just one part of the problem, but mental health issues are complicated and we don’t want to add to the stigma either, so it’s hard to know what exactly to advocate for.” Said Ellie Nikitchyuk, “We realized the biggest impact we could make right now was to support an organization already working hard on these challenges.”

Inspired by the Sandy Hook Team 26 Ride to Washington cyclists who rode to bring awareness for the need for gun violence prevention, Ellie and her mom decided to take physical action too. They recruited the Newtown Acton Team 26 walkers to participate in the local NAMI walk for the National Alliance of Mental Illness.”

Asking for people and businesses to support our walk was a great way to also reach out and start important conversations all around town.” Said Tess Vogel, “And while we were walking that day in Hartford, so many people came up to us when they saw our shirts. They offered support and asked questions. We raised awareness for gun violence prevention while we were walking to raise awareness for mental illness. It was fun and healing at the same time.”We raised nearly $10,000 for NAMI’s programs, education, and advocacy efforts. Tess and Ellie agreed that the spirit of competition between the teens on the team helped them discover the boldness inside themselves needed to ask people to support us and to encourage the conversation on these important issues, too.of causes of gun violence. We do not profess to understand all of them, so one of our objectives is to discover and define the causes through active dialog and investigation.

At the first march I attended in January in DC, someone said ‘it doesn’t matter what your zip code is, or what your neighborhood looks like, gun violence can touch you and people shouldn’t have to experience that, especially at a young age.’ This made a huge impression on me and I realized that as a young person, we needed to take action,” said Sarah Clements, “so I formed the Jr. Newtown Action Alliance for the youth in our town.” For Clements, the word Alliance is the key to the Action. “We strive to form connections with other groups who can help us and groups we can help, too.” Ultimately, the group wants to reach out to other youth organizations and individuals from a variety of backgrounds and locations to grow the movement and work on solutions to reduce gun violence. In September the Jr. NAA joined groups from Hartford, Chicago, Arizona, Virginia, and other areas in Washington, DC to meet with Congress about expanded background checks. “Meeting other people on our trips to Washington, I realize that our experiences may be different,” said Kyra Murray, “but we know the pain and devastation is the same when gun violence touches you personally.”

Of the more than 20 youth who made the trip, one of the Chicago girls had particularly heart-breaking experiences to share. Camiella Williams, who is in her early twenties, told us that every year since she was 15 she has buried at least one friend or family member lost to gun violence. “Her story had a huge impact on me,” said Sarah Clements “She had lost 20 people personally in her life. It really motivates me to keep the urgency on this issue. Every day it costs us lives, real lives. It’s a huge loss.” The week after our trip, sad news came to us from Chicago. Another life lost brings Camiella’s personal loss to 21.

Ellie, Trystan, and Sarah with PeaceJam Newtown fliers. We’ve partnered with Ben’s Bells (above) and Sandy Hook Peaceful Arts (below) for the program service projects. In April, a group of Jr. NAA teens went to the New England region PeaceJam. Trystan Wagner said, “the experience helped me find my voice and share it with others. Our experience was so powerful, we were excited to bring it to other teens here in Newtown.” In October, we are hosting a Newtown-only PeaceJam workshop, “Transforming Tragedy,” to help our youth community move forward. Planning this workshop has also forged community alliances: Ben’s Bells and Sandy Hook Peaceful Arts will be joining us to provide service project opportunities making bells and peace flags.

While we have taken our emotion and passion to rallies and marches for awareness, the Jr. NAA has also made alliances with organizations that have helped us find our voice and use it effectively as we seek practical solutions. Three of our teens to travel to the Generation Progress convention this summer, held by the Center for American Progress. CAP also did an abbreviated activist training with our teens before our first meetings in Washington in September. Mike Viƫ, said “It really helped us create a system to effectively present our issues to the representatives we met with, and respectfully but firmly request their votes.”As we plan our first Youth Gun Violence Summit, where we hope to partner with Girl Be Heard, this coming spring, CAP has been a great mentor for us as well. “It’s great to have excited young professionals with experience who can say ‘you’re on the right track’ or ‘have you considered this or that’” said Sarah Clements. “

While we are reaching out to other organizations and communities, we are also focusing on being the voice for our own community. We have created visibility for our group and our efforts by participating in town functions like the Labor Day parade, Earth Day, and the Newtown Arts Festival.

To help engage our community, we hosted a family Letter Writing Frenzy where teens gave a presentation about how to write to legislators, an overview of the legislation being considered, and a supportive

fun environment to meet other like-minded people.“We say ‘write your representative’ but it’s hard to find the motivation actually to do it, and even harder find the confidence that you’re saying the right It was great to sit together with friends and have people walking around ready to help and be encouraging.” said Mattie Kelly.

We delivered the letters from the Letter Writing Frenzy and the PSA to congress in person. So far we have taken three trips to Washington DC, not including the march. Recently in September our “9 Months No Action” campaign trip to advocate for background check legislation was a particularly powerful trip for the nearly 20 teens who traveled with us.

Trystan Wagner went with the adults on earlier trips, but he said going in teen-only groups this time was different. “As teens our voice is strong. You can see it in the reactions to us. It’s different than it was in the earlier trips. Our passion didn’t change minds so much as changed perspectives. We’re making progress inch by inch.”

”For a couple of us, it was the first time we’ve ever engaged in the political process. It was the first time I really felt ready to take action after the shooting,” said Tess Vogel, who brought two toy soldiers with her to remind her to be bold and use her voice. She was very close to Jesse Lewis, one of the children murdered at Sandy Hook, who stood defiantly in front the shooter to shield them from the violence as best as his six-year old self could. “If he could be so brave as to stand up to a shooter, I can be brave and do something I find uncomfortable. I can stand up in his memory and take action to make a difference.” She smiled sadly and added, “We’ll go back. We’re just not going to give up.”

Junior Newtown Action Alliance Visits Congress for Nine-Month Anniversary of Shooting