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Newtown families call for national dialogue

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By Stephen Busemeyer and Matthew Kauffman

NEWTOWN, Conn. — Family members of children killed one month ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School called on Monday for a national dialogue on guns, mental health and public safety.

"We have a responsibility to make something happen," said Tom Bittman, a co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise, a group of parents, friends and others formed after the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 children and six adults. "We want Newtown to be remembered for change," not only for the tragedy, he said.

"Our country has been stuck in a rut," he said. "We talk past each other... we don’t listen. Sandy Hook Promise will promote a national dialogue."

He said the group will encourage discussions about gun ownership, among other topics.

"Some of us... are gun owners," Bittman said. "We teach our sons and daughters how to use guns safely. We’re not afraid of a discussion about responsibility and accountability."

Some parents of children who were killed at Sandy Hook also spoke at the press conference.

"It’s a sad honour to be here today," said Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan Hockley was killed. "At times it feels like only yesterday, and at others it feels like many years have passed," she said. "I expect him to crawl into bed beside me for early morning cuddles before school... it’s so hard to believe he’s gone."

Nelba Marquez-Greene, the mother of Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, said her faith, family and friends have helped her in the weeks since the shootings.

"We choose love," she said. "Love wins in Newtown, and may love win in America."

In Winnipeg, friends of the family issued a formal statement of support within hours of the press conference.

"One month after the Newtown shooting , friends of the family of Ana Grace Marquez-Greene remind the Canadian public of options to help the family at this time of their devastating loss," it read.

In Winnipeg, Linden Christian School and the University of Winnipeg both set up bursaries to raise funds within days of the mass shooting.

The Marquez-Greene family moved to Winnipeg three years ago. Jimmy Greene, a musician, was a teacher in the faculty of music at the University of Manitoba until the family moved back to Greene’s home state of Connecticut in July. He’s now a music professor at a college in Danbury, Conn.

In Sandy Hook on Monday, parents read the "Sandy Hook Promise" that the group encourages people to sign. In part, it reads:

"Our hearts are broken; our spirit is not. ... This is a promise to truly honour the lives lost by turning our tragedy into a moment of transformation, to be open to all possibilities... to have the conversations on all the issues, conversations where listening is as important as speaking."

The full promise is available at http://www.sandyhookpromise.org/mission.

"Doing nothing is no longer an option," Bittman said. "We have to think, we have to talk, we have to act differently. We know there is no one simple fix... we need holistic solutions... we must look to ourselves. Passing a new law and moving on is not the answer. We have to fundamentally change our approach."

"The bottom line is we must act. We can’t let this happen again," he said.

David Wheeler, whose son Ben was among the victims, emphasized the role of parents in finding solutions.

"What I have recently come to realize is that I am not done being the best parent I can be for Ben," he said in a statement. "If there is something in our society that clearly needs to be fixed or healed or resolved, that resolution needs a point of origin. It needs parents."

The group is asking people to sign the Sandy Hook Promise — pledging "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" — at the group’s website, sandyhookpromise.org.

"The compassion, the kindness and the genuine care that people everywhere have shown to Newtown tells us that the goals of Sandy Hook Promise are within our reach," said Tim Makris, co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise.

What is now Sandy Hook Promise was initially formed to aid the families who lost children in the attack. But following discussions with the families, it became clear the group would also play a role in the national debate on gun violence. The group’s Facebook page includes numerous links to stories on gun control as well as mental health initiatives, although the group has not formally endorsed any proposals as yet.

Records with the Secretary of the State’s office show organizers registered both the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation Inc. and the Sandy Hook Promise Action Fund Inc. The separate entities will allow the group to collect charitable funds for the families as well as donations to pursue political action.

The group, formed just days after the shooting, was set up so quickly organizers were unaware that the name "Newtown United" was already in use — by a local cancer-research organization founded in 2010. That apparently prompted the name change to Sandy Hook Promise.

Monday’s announcement came one month to the day after 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot his way into the elementary school and killed principal Dawn Hochsprung and psychologist Mary Sherlach in a hallway before killing 20 students and four more educators in two classrooms.

— The Hartford Courant, with files from the Winnipeg Free Press

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