NEWTOWN, Conn. — In the window of a local deli, the mother of a Sandy Hook Elementary School student has left a message for this grieving town. Mourning will continue for weeks, months, even years, but focus is turning increasingly to larger issues surrounding Friday’s massacre.
“I pledge … that I renounce the use of violence,” reads the sign, penned by an “anonymous mother” of a local child. “I promise to persistently seek help, guidance, and support if the contemplation of a violent act comes to me.”
Many stopped to read the moving message Tuesday, as townspeople begin to ask painful yet important questions: Why did Adam Lanza have access to such firepower? Why couldn’t anyone help the troubled young man, who was clearly disturbed and in need of mental health services?
The answers are complex and aren’t yet apparent. But in between attending funerals for the 20 children and six adults slain in cold blood by Lanza, the people of Newtown are speaking out, asking why and pleading for action from their political leaders.
“I think this is something that has got to be on somebody’s agenda,” said Jim Sullivan, a longtime Newtown resident who watched his two daughters, now in college, grow up in the tight-knit community, attending Sandy Hook during their early years of schooling. He made clear that gun control and services for the mentally ill are secondary right now — secondary to the sorrow he and others will feel for the rest of their lives.
St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church held back-to-back funerals Tuesday for James Mattioli and Jessica Rekos, both first-graders killed in the rampage.
Yet Mr. Sullivan and others aren’t ducking the bigger picture.
The townspeople have launched a group dubbed Newtown United, with the objective of using the tragic shooting to somehow prevent such violence.
“I would like, when you think of Sandy Hook, you think, ‘Oh, that’s where they banned assault weapons,’” John Neuhoff, a retired paintings conservator who lives in Newtown, told Reuters. “If we can ban fireworks, we should be able to ban assault weapons.”
One of the group’s organizers, Lee Shull, said “something positive” must come out of the Sandy Hook killings.
Other members joined the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington on Tuesday, seeking to build a movement to stop the spate of mass shootings that has swept the nation in recent months, in Newtown; Aurora, Colo.; Oak Creek, Wis.; Tucson, Ariz.; and elsewhere.
During his remarks here Sunday night, President Obama pledged to do just that — form a coalition of law enforcement, educators, mental health professionals and others to identify the root causes of these tragedies and stop them before they occur.
Second Amendment advocates in Congress, such as Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, now appear open to backing gun-control measures, a long-standing policy priority for many Democrats but one that is fraught with political pitfalls and stirs intense emotions on both sides of the debate.
Those politics have met head-on with cold reality in Newtown. On a day when the area’s schools, with the exception of Sandy Hook, resumed normal classes, some parents kept their children home. Their reasons were simple.
“I don’t know if they’re going to come home,” said Jairo Toledo of Danbury, explaining why his children, ages 13 and 12, didn’t go to school.
Those who sent their children back to school did so with reluctance, and many had to be persuaded by their youngsters that it was time to return to the routines of life.
“It was hard, but she doesn’t want to hear about it anymore. She wants to get back to normal,” said John Gentile of nearby Wolcott, explaining why he sent his 12-year-old daughter, Julia, back to school.
As complicated as the gun-control issue is, the people of Newtown and psychologists are grappling with the more difficult question of why Lanza and others do what they do and what can be done to prevent it.
Those who knew the shooter, who took his own life as first responders closed in on Sandy Hook, say he was odd and shy, but that they never imagined what he was capable of doing.
“To know there was a hidden evil walking around school, just another face in the hall, is heartbreaking,” said 19-year-old Brendan Delohery, who graduated a year after Lanza.
Neil Berthier, who also knew Lanza during his high school years, described him as a loner who rarely associated with classmates. After learning who the killer was, Mr. Berthier said, he wasn’t surprised but until then never sensed Lanza would resort to such heartless violence.
“Once you realized who [the killer] was, it all made sense,” Mr. Berthier said. “He really didn’t have any friends. … But you never think they’re going to do anything like that.”
Mental health professionals confront the same problems. The mind of someone like Lanza, they say, largely remains a mystery.
“Human behavior is very complex. … What we can say with confidence is that this individual was suicidal,” said Richard Shadick, director of a counseling center and a psychology professor at New York’s Pace University. “Individuals who are suicidal, there is only a very small subset of those who are violent. We’re looking at a very rare phenomena here that we don’t know a lot about.”
That rare phenomenon was on full display Friday at Sandy Hook and, like Mr. Shadick and other specialists, the people here can’t explain it.
Jim McCloskey, a Vietnam veteran who came to Newtown’s memorial in the town square Tuesday, said he can understand why someone would struggle with thoughts of suicide. He can almost understand, as twisted as it is, why someone may consider killing a family member — in Lanza’s case, his mother.
But Mr. McCloskey is asking the harder, more unsettling question that Newtown and the nation as a whole want answered.
“Why did you have to kill those kids? We’ll never know,” he said.