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Newtown families 'dedicated for life' to reducing gun violence

Mark Barden, whose son Daniel died in the 2012 shooting, said his family remains “shattered,” but that he is devoted for life to reducing gun violence.
A makeshift memorial with crosses for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting massacre stands outside a home in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 14, 2013. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
A makeshift memorial with crosses for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting massacre stands outside a home in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 14, 2013.

Days leading up to the second anniversary of the shooting tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, two parents and a spouse -- still mourning losses -- urged audiences at a New York City theater to join in educating the public about preventing gun violence in America.

Their request wasn’t new, nor were their feelings of the tragedy that's since defined and impacted their everyday lives -- but the mood and momentum surrounding it, that was something to notice.

RELATED: Making a senseless tragedy meaningful in Newtown

Sunday marks the second year since a gunman killed 26 people, 20 first-graders and six educators, inside Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut.

Mark Barden, whose son Daniel died in the shooting, last year said he had the option to do nothing, or to do something. At the recent event at Helen Mills Theater in Manhattan, he said his family remains “shattered,” but that he will dedicate the rest of his life to reducing gun violence.

“If we can do anything to prevent other families from going through this, and we know we can, we need to get the message out there,” Barden said. “I know that we are on the right track.”

Nicole Hockley, who lost her son Dylan that day, emphasized that the start of change simply is getting people to engage in conversations with one another, whether that be gun owner to gun owner about safe-storing measures, or encouraging children to report warning signs of possible violence at school.

Barden and Hockley both firmly told msnbc they are confident the solution will come through grassroots movements like Sandy Hook Promise, the gun-safety advocacy group that focuses on parents’ love for their kids rather than on politics; that each gun death — whether a homicide, suicide, or mass shooting — is preventable.

"No matter how many lives get saved in his name, or in the name of others, I can’t go back. But you can go forward and make a difference."'

Officials found “no conclusive motive” nor indication of why the 20-year-old gunman chose the nearly 400-student school as his target, and killed his mother before driving to the school. A summary report on the shooting also found he had significant mental health issues that, while not affecting the criminality of his mental state, did affect his ability to live a normal life and to interact with others.

Following the massacre, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and some families of the victims pushed for a massive public relations campaign to strengthen gun laws and the ways in which Americans view mental health nationwide. Some relatives of victims have chosen to visit Capitol Hill and to voice their support for stricter gun-control legislation, like Hockley and Barden. Other families request privacy from both the public and press. Some residents said they hate to tell strangers where they lived, and others find it infuriating to have their small New England town defined by that day.

Even as the first-year mark of the shooting came and went in 2013, there seemed to be a constant effort by residents and community leaders to assert control over an inconceivable event. This year, those feelings haven’t been erased, but many people are willing to move on.

Jeff Schutz, a licensed marriage and family therapist who practices in Newtown, last year saw his clientele grow at a pace that normally would have taken nine or 10 months. Upon the two-year mark, however, he said the number of patients seeking his help for trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder has gone down.

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“I still believe that the issues are there, but the town as a whole wants to move on,” he told msnbc. “They don’t like the attention. They love their town, and they don’t like the fact that this is how they’ve been defined.”

Many people affected by trauma, he added, consciously think they have moved on and dealt fully with the aftermath of a tragedy. But residual feelings are often buried deep in the subconscious mind that can take three to five years to surface.

“I think a lot of people are kind of like, ‘Nope, we’re just moving on. We don’t want to talk about it anymore. We don’t want to deal with it. We want to move on,’” Schutz said.

The parents of nearly half of the first-graders who died have filed, or are expected to put into place, notices of wrongful death claims on behalf of their children. Their action — opening an "estate" in the child's name — allows family members to become representatives on behalf of the individuals who died. The move, however, doesn't indicate the relatives ultimately will file a lawsuit in superior court.

Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra and Newtown Superintendent of Schools Joseph Erardi acknowledged residents are “where we are.” They encouraged people around the world to engage in positive actions to honor individuals who die from gun violence, a similar request as last year’s.

“We cannot undo the awful happening on that day — but we can choose how we respond to it and that choice could maybe have long-lasting positive effects,” they wrote in a joint statement to the public ahead of Sunday.

The total number of students attending classes in the Newtown Public School District was 4,769 in October 2014, and 4,912 in the same month last year, according to district data. In October 2012, 5,156 students were enrolled in Newtown.

RELATED: Parents file notices of wrongful death claims

In the two years since the shooting, 37 states have passed a total of 99 laws to strengthen gun regulations, according to data gathered by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. In the 2014 state scorecard, Connecticut ranked second out of all 50 states, behind California, for gun laws and adopting common-sense gun solutions. In 2013, the Constitution State ranked third.

But at the congressional level, the conversation continues to focus on gun control, which opposite sides of the aisle disagree on. As the parents at Sandy Hook Promise believe, there needs to be a nationwide movement around education and awareness. They are taking a holistic approach to preventing gun violence because, as Executive Director Timothy Makris said, it’s not just about the gun; it’s about the days and weeks and months and years leading to the moment when a child picks up a firearm.

In the first election cycle since the Sandy Hook tragedy, gun issues weren’t a factor on most states’ ballots. But during the midterm elections last month, Washington residents passed Initiative 594 to require criminal background checks on all firearms sales and transfers in the state. And public figures, like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have noticed the possibility for innovation and leadership at the local level. Growing disenchanted with the gridlock in Washington, Bloomberg spent more than $20 million of his own money backing pro-gun safety ballot measures and candidates from both parties he believed will take a bipartisan approach to governing in polarized times. This year alone, Bloomberg’s group, Everytown for Gun Safety, endorsed 115 candidates in both federal and state elections who support commonsense gun laws. “Voters have seen enough,” the former mayor wrote in an op-ed published in November on his company’s site, BloombergView. “I share their frustration, and as a strong believer in the idea that cities and states are the laboratories of democracy, I share their determination to act.”

"If we can do anything to prevent other families from going through this, and we know we can, we need to get the message out there."'

Since August, members of Sandy Hook Promise have been meeting with community leaders, school board officials, and law enforcement authorities in Ohio. So far, the level of engagement and interest from community leaders in taking measures to reduce gun violence have exceeded their expectations.

Toby Milstein, 22, of San Francisco, California, began a project to donate to charity following the July 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, where 12 people died and dozens were injured. She said she wanted to help victims’ families and to tie a specific message to gun responsibility, an issue she felt had “gone out of control.” The bracelets and necklaces she sells show a gun inside a prohibited circle with the message: “Wear It, Don’t Bear It.” The idea, she said, is to promote peace, anti-violence, and a safer world for children and families.

“Clearly some more work needs to be done because this violence is really out of control,” Milstein told msnbc. “The more people can find common ground about these issues, the more action that can actually happen in a very positive, meaningful way.”

Now, 100% of her proceeds go toward the Sandy Hook Promise.

Erica Lafferty, whose mother, Dawn Hochsprung, was the Sandy Hook principal who was among the six educators who died, said she wants to fight gun violence for the same reason: so that others never have to feel the pain she feels. In a letter she addressed as, “dear friends,” Lafferty urges the public to join her by calling a lawmaker, signing a petition, or donating to an organization.

Hockley said Sandy Hook Promise is dedicated to community-based solutions to engage in conversations about education and awareness. Look at the Brady Bill. It took seven years for the measure, the last piece of major gun legislation passed by Congress, to become law on Nov. 20, 1993. The legislation requires a five-day waiting period and background checks on handgun purchases.

“It’s not acceptable,” Hockley said, “because they are all preventable.”

In a letter she addressed to the mom she “used to be,” Hockley says: “You have to care enough and be insightful enough to do something before it’s too late.”

“No matter how many lives get saved in his name, or in the name of others, I can’t go back,” she concludes. “But you can go forward and make a difference.”