Survivors of Sandy Hook start life again, under police watch

Jan 4, 2013
Charles Laurence

As Newton's elementary schoolchildren are bussed to a new school, real gun reform looks as unlikely as ever

AMERICA'S children went back to school after the Christmas break yesterday, and among the millions clambering onto the iconic yellow school buses across the nation were the 6- to 11-year-olds of the Sandy Hook Elementary School of Newtown, Connecticut.

They were the survivors of the massacre which shocked the world just 20 days ago when Adam Lanza, 20, armed with a military-style semi-automatic rifle owned by his mother, who he had just killed, burst into their school and murdered 20 children and six members of staff before killing himself.

The children's last memory of school had been hiding in cupboards and under desks amid gunfire and screams, and being led to safety while being told to cover their eyes as they filed past the bodies of the dead.

The local school authority and a volunteer force of locals and parents made a remarkable job of treating yesterday's return to class as a brand new day.

They were returning to the same school in name but not location. The children were bussed to the neighbouring town of Monroe, seven miles away, where an intermediate school had been closed due to falling rolls.

Teams of builders and volunteers spent the holidays raising bathroom floors and lowering towel rails to fit younger kids. They brought in desks and art-work, maps and diagrams from the old Sandy Hook to help the kids feel at home. They brought in back packs abandoned in flight, and attached name plates to new lockers.

Extra school psychologists have been added to the staff, but there was no way to bring back the principal, Dawn Hochsprung, because she was shot and killed by Lanza while trying to block his way. Instead, Sandy Hook's former headmistress, Donna Page, has come out of retirement to hold the fort.

And extra police were on patrol. Squad cars were parked at the entrances to schools all over the affluent suburban area, and officers hovered at the new Sandy Hook.

"I think," Lt Keith White of the Monroe police told the New York Times, "right now it has to be the safest school in America."

He did not, apparently, intend any ironic reference to the response to the massacre from the gun lobby, the National Rifle Association. After maintaining a discrete silence for nearly a week, the NRA announced on 21 December that the way to protect American children from mass-killers with military rifles was to arm teachers and post armed guards at every school.

The image of Sandy Hook is already fading as the backdrop to America's debate over gun violence and the Second Amendment constitutional right to bear arms.

President Obama promised action, and tasked Vice President Joe Biden with drafting laws to ban military-style weapons to put to Congress by 15 January.

Biden is a veteran of 30 years of attempts to reform gun laws. He played a major role in the Clinton ‘ban' on military weapons in the 1990s, legislation which simply outlawed rifles being sold as fully automatic and with more than two "military-style extras" (such as pistol grips and extended ammunition clips, all of which could be added later) and which expired after 10 years.

The Bushmaster AR15, the copy of America's army rifle used in the Sandy Hook massacre, could have been bought legally even when that law was in force.

Biden, a sincere opponent of the extremes of the Second Amendment and the gun merchants who exploit it, is determined to get his law back on the books.

He may have a chance of tightening up regulations on, say, checks on buyers for mental health problems before gun shops can hand over multi-bullet magazines, and perhaps even extending federal background checking facilities to make such checks cheaper for the seller.

But the idea that anything more than window dressing can make it through Capitol Hill has been almost comically re-enforced by the misadventures of a local newspaper in the Westchester suburbs of New York.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, the News Journal of West Nyack decided to publish an interactive map showing local households with handgun licences, information legally available at the Sheriff's office. The paper's report showed a forest of pins on the interactive map. Most Americans own a gun or two – and 'long guns' including Bushmasters do not need licences, which are for handguns.

The reaction was furious. Neighbours learned who did or did not "pack heat", and hundreds responded with furious calls to the newspaper office. When protest turned threatening, the newspaper had to hire armed guards to protect its offices.

So this morning there are armed police outside Sandy Hook Elementary School, and a private army in the lobby of the News Journal of West Nyack.

It does not point to a promising environment for gun control in America.

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