My Mom Was Killed in Sandy Hook. Now I'm Fighting to Prevent Gun Violence
Erica Lafferty is a Programs Manager at Everytown for Gun Safety and member of the Everytown Survivor Network. Here, she reacts to the school shooting in Parkland, Fl., Wednesday, which killed at least 17 people.
“How many people are dead?” That was the text message I sent as soon as I heard about the shooting in Parkland, Fl., because that’s what it’s come to in my head—not, ‘Was anybody killed?’ but ‘How many?’ My next thought was, “Please let the principal be okay.”
My mom, Dawn Hochsprung, was the principal who was killed in the shooting at Sandy Hook in 2012. It jolted my entire life. My mom, my best friend and my caretaker, was murdered. Aside from trying to grasp what life would be like without her, I started almost compulsively watching the news. I learned that someone could buy a gun without a background check, that that was legal.
To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to politics prior to that. After the shooting, that changed. I was a college admissions counselor. In January of 2013, I walked into work, and I think I was in the building for about five minutes before I realized I couldn’t be in a school. I walked out and never went back.
Instead, I made gun-violence prevention my mission. The Manchin-Toomey bill, a bipartisan effort that called for a background check on every gun sale, was how I became involved. It was a common-sense step to save a ton of lives. There was a group of Republicans senators who were threatening to filibuster, essentially saying it wasn’t even worth a vote. After 26 people, including 20 small children, were murdered in an elementary school, how can you say that guns don’t even deserve a vote? My mom was just murdered in her elementary school in a hallway. This was going to happen.
I emailed and called the senators but didn’t really get responses. So I did what any millennial would do: I took to social media. I tweeted at them with pictures, saying, “This is my sister with my mom at her wedding—I’m not going to have this at my wedding. Why don’t I deserve a vote?” I gained attention and in the process, I met Chris Kocher, founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which eventually became Everytown for Gun Safety. I have been on staff since.
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On the broadest level, Everytown’s goal is to reduce the number of Americans killed by guns on a daily basis, and our top priority for the past five years has been comprehensive background checks. It’s been proven to be the single most important thing we can do to keep guns out of dangerous hands. We saw it with the UC Santa Barbara shooting in 2014—there were red flags before the shooter got his hands on a gun and killed six people. And in the wake of Florida, we’re seeing that there were warning signs that this shooter was potentially dangerous too.
I think our biggest problem right now is that the majority of our elected officials are bought and paid for by the NRA. [Even most gun owners believe in background checks for all gun purchases.] But the NRA has funded politicians’ campaigns, so they are going to publicly support whatever the NRA pays them to support. And if they don’t, they face smear campaigns.
Back in 2013, when I was making all those phone calls, Senator Ted Cruz called back. I remember I saw the D.C. number and thought, ‘Is someone actually returning my call?’ But in our conversation, Cruz was like, “We’re going to agree to disagree.” All I was thinking is, ‘No, I don’t even agree on that.’ He talked in circles about how this is not a background check issue. The same thing happened when I had a face-to-face with former New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte: “It’s not a background check system issue. A background check wouldn't have stopped Sandy Hook.”
And I get that. But it might have stopped Florida. It might have stopped UC Santa Barbara. And it might stop the mass shooting that could happen three days from now. Just because it’s not going to stop every single shooting doesn’t mean it’s not the best step to take to prevent the majority of them.
There are those who say this is about mental health, not guns. Yes, mental health is a broad issue. That doesn’t mean that every single person with a mental illness is unable to have access to a firearm (I personally have been diagnosed with PTSD). It’s about limiting access to people who have proven to be a danger to themselves or others. And the way that we can figure out who exactly those people are is by strengthening our background checks and allowing the current laws to be funded, enforced, and expanded to include every single gun sale. Guns don’t abide by state lines. Connecticut has strong gun laws, but that’s not to say somebody can't go to Florida and drive one up I-95.
That needs to be changed on a federal level. But states do have the ability to take the proper steps to become safer. “Red flag laws” like California's, [which, upon a judge’s orders, allow for the confiscation of a gun before an act of violence is committed], expand the ability for family members or friends to wave the red flag and say, “Hey, this person may be dangerous. They have made threats.”
There’s not one policy solution that’s going to completely solve gun violence. I’m not that naive. I might have been five years ago, but I’m not now. I know this is going to be a step-by-step process, so we need to break it down and find the most basic things to focus on, like background checks and red flags. Those are two of the biggest issues that I would like to see everyone focus on, from the voting booth up to our administration.
I’ve had MSNBC on since the Florida shooting, and they keep flashing to an image of an FBI agent leading elementary school students out of the building through the parking lot. My mom’s car, a Chevy Traverse, is in the background. They flash to that picture and then back to a similar one of students being evacuated in Florida, saying “the deadliest since…” Sandy Hook is no longer a school, Sandy Hook is no longer a town, Sandy Hook is a comparison.
My goal is to not let my mom turn into a statistic. To not let her death be in vain. I want her to be remembered—and I want people to not have to feel how I feel and have felt for the last five years.
Part of that healing, for me, was working with Everytown Survivor Network, an ever-growing club of survivors and their families. Shortly after my mother was killed, I spent a lot of time with Steve Barton from the Aurora movie theater shooting and Colin Goddard, who was shot in Virginia Tech, and I asked them almost on a loop, “OK, tell me exactly what you felt, tell me what you saw, tell me exactly what you heard.” I had them walk me through every aspect of the shooting. It’s almost like I wanted to know what my mom was thinking and feeling and smelling and hearing in her last seconds. That almost eased my mind. I thought, ‘OK, well, when Colin was shot, it was numbing, so maybe she didn’t feel that much pain.’ I don’t think I would've survive that first couple of years without people who were willing to share their experiences with me, and now I do the same for people who are a little more fresh into this club that no one wants to be a part of.
What can you do? The best thing that everyone can do is pay attention. Find out where your elected officials stand. Do they have a track record of trying to prevent tragedies? Or do they receive funding from the NRA? If they don’t have a history of supporting common-sense gun legislation, find someone who will. And in November, go to the ballot box and vote for them.
—As told to Romy Oltuski