Youth Justice


I would like every parent in this country . . . I would like them to look in the mirror.  And that’s not a figure of speech . . . I mean, literally find a mirror in your house and look in it and look in your eyes and say, ‘This will never happen to me. This will never happen in my school. This will never happen in my community.’ And see if you actually believe that. And if there is a shadow, the slightest shadow of doubt about what you’ve said, think about what you can do to change that in your house, in your community, in your school, in your country, because we have an obligation to our children to do this for them. It’s gonna happen again. It is going to happen again. And every time, you know, it’s somebody else’s school, it’s somebody else’s town.  It’s somebody else’s community. Until one day you wake up and it’s not.

–David Wheeler, interview with CBS News’s 60 Minutes 

David Wheeler, the father who issued this heartfelt request, knows firsthand that no community, school, or parent in America can truly believe their children are safe from our shameful national gun violence epidemic.  For David, his wife Francine, and their hometown of Newtown, Connecticut, December 14 was that “one day.”  The Wheelers’ six-year-old son Ben was killed in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Now the Wheelers and other family members of victims have joined with community members and supporters from around the country in the nonprofit organization Sandy Hook Promise to stand up and demand our nation do everything possible to prevent this from happening again. Let us say as they say: “I promise to honor the 26 lives lost at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  I promise to do everything I can to encourage and support common sense solutions that make my community and our country safer from similar acts of violence.  I promise this time there will be change.”

Last week there was real change in Connecticut. Thanks to determined and strong bipartisan leadership and support, the General Assembly passed one of the nation’s strongest state gun violence prevention laws. How did this happen?  The families from Sandy Hook were joined by a loud and persistent groundswell of advocates and other citizens from around the state demanding common sense solutions and change.  Gun advocates came out in force, not surprising given that Colt, Mossberg, Stag Arms, and many other gun manufacturers are located in the state of Connecticut. Last month, the Colt plant in Hartford closed down for the day so employees could go to the Capitol to rally against gun safety measures. But thoughtful and determined lawmakers kept their eye on child safety and parents, grandparents, faith leaders, and other child advocates refused to give up or be drowned out.

To their great credit, Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, and Senate and House Minority Leaders John McKinney and Lawrence Cafero Jr. earnestly negotiated for weeks to secure bipartisan support.  In the end, 105 of 121 Democrats and 26 of 66 Republicans cast aye votes for the strong provisions that genuinely honor the child and educator sacrifices of Sandy Hook and other children, teens, and adults who have died from guns across their state.

The new law requires background checks for all gun sales and strengthens the assault weapons ban by redefining an assault weapon to fix loopholes in the state’s existing law and adding more than 100 guns to the list of banned weapons.  The sale or purchase of both the weapon and the high-capacity ammunition clips used in the Sandy Hook murders would be prohibited under this new law. The Sandy Hook shooter carried 10 magazines with 30 bullets in each one into the elementary school.  The new law prohibits the sale or purchase of magazines with more than 10 bullets.  Gun owners who already own large capacity magazines are required to register them by January 2014 and are prohibited from loading them with more than 10 rounds outside of a person’s home or a shooting range. The new law also bans the sale of armor piercing bullets which law enforcement agencies have long requested.

Connecticut went further by enacting new eligibility rules for the purchase of rifles, shotguns, and ammunition, by strengthening the state’s safe storage requirement which already applied to storage of guns with children in the home, and by increasing the penalties for illegal gun trafficking and possession.

And the new Connecticut law did not stop there.  It specifically covers mental health and school safety. By creating a task force to study Connecticut’s mental health system focused on young people ages 16 to 25, improving commercial mental health insurance coverage in the state, and offering support to pediatricians to intervene with children with mental health challenges, the new law attempts to expand mental health treatment for those in need and prevent problems from escalating.

Other provisions address safety in elementary, middle schools, and high schools as well as state colleges and universities.  The law requires the development of school security and safety plans statewide by January 2014 and requires school climate committees to investigate threatening and disturbing behavior.

Connecticut is not alone in moving forward on gun safety.  New York, Colorado, and Maryland have all passed new gun violence prevention legislation in the last four months.  In each of these states, ordinary citizens have said no more and lawmakers have displayed the courage to listen and lead.  Now it’s time for Congress to lead for children and for all of us in every state—not just some—to demand action not obstruction and to put protection of child and citizen safety ahead of guns—especially deadly assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines that should not be in civilian hands.

The gun violence prevention bills pending in Congress deserve a vote.  On Monday the Senate begins debate on a package of gun violence prevention measures and they need to hear from you to protect children, not guns. Please contact your Senators now and tell them to follow the lead of Connecticut Democrats and Republicans in passing universal background checks, strong bans on assault weapons and ammunition magazines with more than 10 bullets, and positive school safety measures.

Earlier this week when President Obama spoke at the University of Hartford about reducing gun violence, he was introduced by Nicole Hockley whose six-year-old son Dylan was killed at Sandy Hook.  The President’s eyes welled up with tears as he talked about her courage:  “I’ve heard Nicole talk about what her life has been like since Dylan was taken from her in December.  And one thing she said struck me.  She said, ‘Every night, I beg for him to come to me in my dreams so that I can see him again.  And during the day, I just focus on what I need to do to honor him and make change.’  Now, if Nicole can summon the courage to do that, how can the rest of us do any less?”

This time there must be change.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.