Grief and contemplation. At site of Sandy Hook shooting on 10th anniversary, Northeastern experts reflect

sandy hook permanent memorial
Flowers rest on the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial in Newtown, Conn., where the names of the 20 first graders and six educators killed a short distance away at Sandy Hook Elementary School 10 years ago are engraved in concrete around a memorial pool. AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson

NEWTOWN, Conn.—The two visitors from Northeastern have devoted their work to the crisis of gun violence in America. On Wednesday afternoon they stood atop a shallow hill overlooking a memorial to the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

On this day 10 years ago, a 20-year-old man with a semi-automatic rifle killed 20 first-grade students and six educators at their school in this quaint town 80 miles from New York City. 

“I was at the State Department and I saw Newtown come up on the news channel,” recalled Sarah Peck, a former U.S. diplomat who serves as director of UnitedOnGuns, a non-partisan initiative of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern’s School of Law. “I have a brother who lives here. His wife is a teacher, his daughters were in the school system, and I’m seeing a mass shooting unfold on the TV at work.”

headshot of james alan fox
James Alan Fox, the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Ten years later, Peck made her way down the hill with James Alan Fox, a Northeastern criminology professor who has been studying mass shootings for four decades. They were making their first visits to the memorial, which opened last month.

“The idea is contemplation, much like a Buddhist stupa where you can go around in circles and reflect,” Peck would say at the end of her visit. “Literally, the word ‘reflect’ applies to this, right? There’s no straight path, no sharp edges. You gently wander down in this beautiful open field and then you have this gentle place, quiet and away from road structures, where you can contemplate and stroll and just be alone with your thoughts. It is very elegant.”

Visitors to the understated memorial are welcomed by a plaque that includes remarks by former President Barack Obama. “I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief; that our world, too, has been torn apart; that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you,” Obama said at a vigil here two days after the shooting.

A winding back-and-forth path of black gravel rises above the memorial like a long wisp of smoke. It feeds down to a gray circular pool whose center is filled with a small island sprouting a cypress tree. A threadbare blanket of snow covered much of the landscape on Wednesday, pierced by vegetation stubborn and bare. The field is curtained by bare woods through which can be seen shadows of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, which has been enhanced by a design offering protections to the students and teachers that were unavailable at its predecessor, long since torn down.

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Sarah Peck, director of UnitedOnGuns, a non-partisan initiative of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern’s School of Law. Courtesy photo

“The front of the new school is very welcoming,” says Fox, who was scheduled to tour the school grounds on Thursday with the local superintendent. “Except if somebody comes who is approaching with a gun, they’ll know very quickly, long before they get to the front door—because of all the glass at the front, and the fact that you just can’t go [straight] to the front door because of the design.”

Fox maintains the Associated Press/USA TODAY/Northeastern University Mass Killing Database, the longest-running and most extensive data source on mass killings in the U.S. He was in Newtown after the shooting in his role as an analyst for NBC News. 

The tragedy created a kneejerk—and ultimately false—premise that gun laws would be changed.

“Obama urged Congress to do something and they did nothing—nothing happened federally until after Uvalde,” Fox says of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 children and two teachers in May. “Even then, what was passed in the wake of Uvalde was insufficient.”

Leaders and organizations representing a wide range of perspectives have stepped into the legislative vacuum. UnitedOnGuns, formed by Peck in 2019, is among them.

“I’m not sure that legislation is the answer to this problem,” says Peck in reference to school mass shootings which, as noted by Fox, are rare. “You have people who are so disaffected, angered and aggrieved that they think their best option is to shoot people. No amount of laws is going to change that. So, really, it’s a matter of trying to figure out ways to get to the heart of the problem.”

Peck draws hope from progress made on a variety of fronts, including the bipartisan Safer Communities Act, passed by Congress in June, which addresses issues of gun violence, mental health and school safety. 

Peck’s organization—with Fox among its advisers—created a mass shooting protocol to help guide decision-making in the aftermath of such tragic events.

“It’s 200 pages of best practices and resources in the 10 critical-topic areas, including crisis communications, emergency management, victim services, legal considerations, building partnerships—and a couple of cross-cutting chapters, including school shootings,” says Peck, a Northeastern law graduate. “It’s a template that is available for free on our website that city officials can use and customize to prepare for mass shootings.”

The Sandy Hook shooting is highly personal to Peck. Thankfully, her family members were not involved in the tragic event. As she made her way down to the memorial with Fox, and walked clockwise around its pool, the low gray sun filtering through the clouds and reflecting off the water, she read the name of each victim etched along the top of the circular wall. Single long-stem flowers adorned the wall. Bouquets floated in silence around the memorial’s pool, carried counterclockwise by an unending current.

True to the private spirit of the memorial, no public ceremonies were planned for the 10-year remembrance.

Perhaps two dozen people were making their way around, some of them stopping at a certain name. 

Among them was a large man in a parka and a thick winter hat. He stepped toward the memorial with a trumpet.

“Ave Maria” carried across the snowy field, its familiar notes held trembling for the extra moment.

“It is one of the more beautiful memorials I’ve seen,” Fox would say. As the trumpeter’s instrument sang “Amazing Grace,” languid and mourning, Peck nodded in reply to thoughts all her own, the tears brimming her eyes.

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