NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) - Comedian Jay Leno agreed to emcee a dinner next month in Las Vegas for the Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation. He changed plans after Erica Lafferty Smegielski called him out.
Smegielski is the daughter of Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School who died trying to protect her staff from a shooter on a murderous rampage two years ago today.
“Pretty sad that @jayleno thinks it’s ok to make light of the murder of my mother and countless other Americans,” Smegielski tweeted Nov. 19. “Beyond disgusted with him.”
Her chastisement rocketed through gun control circles on social media. Later that night, Leno backed out, saying he thought the event was a sportsmen’s show, not a pro-gun rally. Leno’s decision prompted the National Shooting Sports Foundation to say Leno was lied to by the “anti-gun lobby.”
“We are not deterred by their publicity seeking nor are we unfamiliar with the bullying political tactics of the gun control groups that seem to have little respect for the First Amendment as they continually demonstrate with regard to the Second Amendment,” the statement read. A foundation spokesman declined to comment about Smegielski specifically, although she was one of the loudest voices in the Leno backlash.
Such is smegielski’s new life, one thrust into being the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, the day her mother died of gunshot wounds in the school hallway. Smegielski channeled her grief into a mission that in a year’s time would transform her into a nationally recognized face of the gun control movement.
Smegielski (pronounced smeh-gel-ski) has taken stands on social media, reached out to victims of gun violence, addressed the nation’s leaders from the Senate floor, and traveled to other states to step into their gun control fights. She has twice protested outside the National Rifle Association’s annual convention.
Smegielski spoke about her mother on NBC’s Today show last year, and has been interviewed by hundreds of newspapers, magazines and television stations. This month more than 4,000 people shared a link to a remembrance of her mother she wrote that was published by the Huffington Post. Conservative bloggers revile her as misinformed and unfairly labeling all gun owners, including a self-described “right-of-center” blog called Gateway Pundit, which called her “a committed leftist activist from Connecticut … now she attends town hall events in other states to harass Republicans who support the Second Amendment.”
Smegielski, who wasn’t politically active before her mother’s murder, dismisses the critics and says she will not sway until stricter federal laws make it more difficult to purchase guns. It’s an issue that would not have prevented the Newtown shooting, but one she has adopted in its wake. Smegielski represents one of the most antagonistic political divides splintering the country, an emotionally volatile issue where constitutional rights and public safety concerns intersect in the most personal of ways.
If she could, she’d wish it away in an instant, she said.
Smegielski enjoyed a happy, private existence before the Newtown shootings. She worked as an admission counselor at Post University in Waterbury, was planning a wedding with a fiancee whom she had known since childhood. Her mother adored him and had always said she hoped they would marry. Smegielski was enjoying an adult relationship with her mother, whom she called her best friend.
Just before 10 a.m. Dec. 14, 2012, Smegielski’s phone pinged: a breaking news alert from NBC30. Shooting reported at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Smegielski, who had that day off, called her sister, Tina Lafferty Hassinger, who was with three of her four children at Target in Waterbury. Smegielski wanted to rush to Sandy Hook; her sister persuaded her to meet at her house in Watertown. “Tina said, ‘Mom would be so mad at you if you walked into a dangerous situation where a gunman was on the loose,” Smegielski said.
Parents at the scene told television reporters the principal had been shot.
“I just remember my brother-in-law throwing the remote down, and Tina frantically trying to find the batteries so she could rewind and make sure she heard it correctly,” Smegielski said.
The daughters rushed to sandy hook, pulling up to confusion and panic. They found George Hochsprung, their mother’s husband, and the three joined crowds of terrified relatives near the Sandy Hook firehouse searching for parents and wives and children.
“We asked a father with his son, ‘Have you seen the principal?’ The kid looked up at us and said, ‘No, she’s …’ Before he finished his sentence, his father put his hand over the kid’s mouth and said, ‘No, I’m sorry. We don’t know anything.”
A firefighter escorted them into a back room of the firehouse. They waited for hours. They were told not to leave.
By mid-afternoon, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy walked in to address the families of 26 people. “No one left in the building is alive,” the governor told them.
People collapsed in shock. Screams pierced the air. “Chaos,” Smegielski said.
“The whole time, I’m thinking that my mom should be here, because she needs to help these parents,” she said.
That night, Smegielski curled herself into a love seat at her aunt’s house in Naugatuck, overcome with grief.
The phone rang incessantly, reporter after reporter, from around the globe.
Dawn hochsprung had been helping to plan her daughter’s upcoming wedding, including picking the gown. They envisioned a summer wedding for Erica Lafferty and Chris Smegielski in the backyard of a home Hochspring and her husband were building in the Adirondacks.
Mother and daughter had always been close. Smegielski, who lives in Prospect, grew up in a blue collar neighborhood on the west side of Naugatuck. Hochspring was a young, single mother who raised Erica and Tina as she worked her way through college.
Erica carries a strong resemblance of her mother: thin build, brown hair, large brown eyes and pearly smile. Both loved to laugh and joke, but Dawn Hochsprung, who was 47 when she died, was known for fiercely committed attitude when circumstances demanded it. It’s how she died, yelling, “Shooter! Stay put!” and running toward gunman Adam Lanza, according to multiple witness accounts.
Smegielski didn’t always possess her mother’s determination or attitude. She dropped out of high school before later earning associate’s and bachelor’s degrees at Naugatuck Valley Community College and at Post. When her mother died, she told family and friends she did not think she could muster the strength to go through with the wedding, to take such a major step forward in her life.
But she did, eight months after the shooting, resplendent and glowing in her strapless white gown and flowing silk veil. She and her husband married in the Adirondacks, just as planned, except now it was also near her mother’s grave, not just the house to which she dreamed of retiring.
Like any wedding, the day focused on the couple, a celebration of their new life. Still, Smegielski visited her mother’s grave that morning, wearing her gown and veil, and kissed the headstone. On her wrist, she wore a green bracelet, the color adopted by Sandy Hook shooting victims and supporters. It was the rubbery kind onto which people can have messages printed across the band. Erica’s read: “What would Dawn do?”
Smegielski decided to push for gun control after watching television one spring afternoon in 2013. She had been wrapped in a fleece blanket on her couch, which is how she had been spending a lot of time since her mother’s death, uninterested in venturing into the warming weather or in hearing people say how sorry they were.
She saw a news report about the Manchin-Toomey bill stalling in Washington. The bill, proposed by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, sought to establish a federal law that would close some loopholes in requirements for background checks, particularly involving gun shows, online sales and private, rather than retail, transactions.
Smegielski turned on her computer and looked up the word “filibuster.”
“I was not into politics at all,” she said. “When I learned it meant they possibly wouldn’t vote, I was appalled.”
Smegielski started tweeting elected officials, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who was threatening the filibuster. She sent pictures of her mother and tried shaming officials into voting.
“I told them that my mom did everything she could to protect what could have been considered my mom’s constituents, the people in her school,” Smegielski said. “My mom did her job that day - imagine how many more would have died if she didn’t get in front of the gunman? So if she did her job, why weren’t they going to do theirs?”
Cruz called Smegielski. From that same couch where she had sought retreat, she engaged him in a passionate but respectful debate for about 20 minutes. They agreed to disagree.
Something within Smegielski stirred.
Within months, she stood at a town-hall meeting in New Hampshire - the one which prompted the conservative blogger to hail her as a liberal activist from Connecticut. She confronted Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, who voted against the Manchin-Toomey bill, which by then had failed in a 54-46 vote.
“You had mentioned … the burden on owners of gun stores that the expanded background checks would cause,” Smegielski said to the hall packed with residents and journalists. “I’m just wondering why the burden of my mother being gunned down in the hallway of her elementary school isn’t as important as that.”
Soon, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, founded and largely funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hired Smegielski. The organization has since merged with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and changed its name to Everytown for Gun Safety.
“I spent my entire working life in some form of customer or student service,” Smegielski said. “I worked at a Verizon call center, and I loved that job. But how do I go back to a job where my primary responsibility is to listen to someone complain about an overage on their cellphone bill when 86 Americans are being shot to death every day? There are bigger issues out there and bigger things for me to do.”
Everytown for gun safety focuses largely on expanded background checks, a step Smegielski acknowledges would have made no difference in the Sandy Hook murders, where the gunman stole his weapons from his mother, who had legally purchased them.
Smegielski said the organization focuses on background checks because “every law enforcement officer and every study done says that is the single fastest and most effective way to save as many people as possible.”
Stacey Radnor, deputy communications director for Everytown for Gun Safety, called Smegielski a fearless, passionate and dedicated advocate.
“She is a beaming light of motivation,” she said. “You can just tell with everything she does that the bond between her and her mother was so strong, and that comes through with everything she does.”
Radnor said much of Smegielski’s work involves reaching out to survivors of gun violence to tell them about programs Everytown for Gun Safety has available and of efforts to curb gun violence. Radnor said that after the Isla Vista shootings near the campus of U.C. Santa Barbara in California on May 23, Smegielski immediately reached out to Richard Martinez, father of Christopher Michaels-Martinez, one of the six people who died in that shooting.
Richard Martinez said he and Smegielski have become close. She has given him personal advice and told him ways to use his story to try to make a difference. He also said they are similar in the way they grieve.
“We don’t keep it inside, we speak out,” he said. “We are committed … We are on a mission because the longer it takes to get background checks in place and reduce gun violence, the more kids like my son are going to die. For people like Erica’s mother and all those kids at Sandy Hook to die is just not right.”
Smegielski has forged her new identity, and she’s not letting go.
“Once Erica puts her mind to something, she can do anything she wants,” said Melissa Lewis of Woodbury, who has been friends with Smegielski since they met at Nonnewaug High School in 2001. Lewis saw her friend drop out of Nonnewaug, then go on to earn college degrees, and now rise from crippling grief to lobby for a mission that has become her life’s calling.
Smegielski said she tries to live her mother’s words every day: “Be Nice to Each Other. That’s All That Really Matters.” She says she receives hate mail, has been called a liar, and been the target of death threats.
She maintains she is not “anti-gun.”
“Just show me that you can pass a background check, that you are a responsible person and that you will store it away from children and away from people with mental illness who may be a danger to themselves and others. I’m all for the Second Amendment, but that does go hand in hand with responsible gun ownership.”
Information from: Republican-American, https://www.rep-am.com
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