This spring, Carlee Soto tried to go back to school. It was what her big sister would have wanted.
“Vicki was very into school. It was not an option—after high school you went to school for four years and you got a degree,” she said. So Carlee, 20, enrolled in Housatonic Community College to continue her bachelor’s degree.
But like certain songs on the radio, classrooms bring on overwhelming emotion--because that's where her sister Victoria Soto, a first-grade teacher in the Sandy Hook Elementary School, was murdered while she tried to protect her students.
“I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t concentrate in classrooms because I kept thinking, what happens if someone comes in and starts shooting?”
Six months ago Friday, Carlee’s big sister—along with 20 young students and five other educators—died in Newtown, Conn.
“I wish I could be in my room and grieve alone and just cry, but I know that I have to fight for my sister,” she told msnbc.com. “As painful as it is, grieving in public, I have to do it.”
So she—and so many other Newtown families—are using their pain to fight for change, bringing their stories to Congress and refusing to be forgotten.
‘We’re not going anywhere’
“My sister died a hero. She died protecting her students,” Carlee told msnbc.com, explaining her return to Washington this week. “Until we see change come upon us, we’re not going anywhere.”
This kind of steely determination has brought the families back to Washington, following the defeat of a background check bill in April by just four votes. This week, they've met with legislators, hosted rallies and events for the press to reignite the conversation.
"We are here for the marathon," Bill Sherlach told Sen. Joe Manchin. Sherlach’s wife, Mary, was murdered in the shooting. “We really have no choice. I’ll spend the rest of my life without my wife.”
Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has become a de facto leader on gun safety since brokering the background checks bill with Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican. Choking up as he spoke, Manchin pledged his continued support to the families in the open meeting, but had little to offer in the way of tangible answers. Manchin’s office says that while the senator is meeting with his colleagues, there is no news.
On Friday, six months to the day from the massacre, there is an all-day remembrance event in Newtown, Conn. From there, Mayors Against Illegal Guns kicks off a bus tour entitled “No More Names: The National Drive to Reduce Gun Violence.” The tour will bring Carlee and others to 25 states over 100 days to rally support for gun control as legislators prepare for a second attempt at passing background checks. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said he hopes to see a bill passed by the end of the year.
The lobbying efforts of the Newtown families has the power to change senators’ minds, he said. “If you hear their story, if you hear their plea, there will be something unlocked in your heart that will get you to yes.”
‘Every single second of every single day’
“It is one day at a time,” Carlee said. "Some days I don’t want to get out of bed, some days I can have a normal day until something reminds me of my sister and then the pain is unreal, unbelievable, and unimaginable.”
The failure of the background checks bill only exacerbated that pain, many family members say.
“It’s extremely frustrating… to see 90% of our country agree on this and our country never agrees on anything!” Carlee said. “And for our legislators just not to care. We vote them into office to speak for us. Who are they speaking for?”
Erica Lafferty, the daughter of the school’s slain principal, Dawn Hochsprung, echoed her frustration on Wednesday, speaking with reporters.
“Every single day, in the moment I wake up, I feel just as disgusted with the April 17th vote as I did sitting in the gallery,” she said. “I’m not going to give up till something happens to reduce that number of 33 people who are killed each day…33 families a day should not have to live with the feeling that I feel every single second of every single day.”
“I don’t want anyone else to have to feel this unbelievable pain we have to go through every day,” Carlee said.
“This mother’s heartbreak that I carry, this life sentence that I have? No one should ever bear this burden and I’m incredibly grateful to those people who are still here,” Nelba Marquez-Green told Manchin. Marquez-Green’s daughter Ana, 6, was killed in the elementary school. “At six months, at six months later, my heart breaks not only for my family, but also for the eight families today that will suffer the loss of a child due to gun violence today in this country,” she said.