Frigid Vigils on Newtown Anniversary

Sunday, December 15, 2013
A tall Christmas tree tied with cheery red bows on the Quechee bandstand stood in sharp contrast to the purpose of the people gathered there Saturday morning. Their faces only partly visible from under thick scarves, hats and hoods, they greeted each other by name and then fell silent in the frigid air, ready to remember those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

There are two reasons for the vigil, Dick Brooks, a retired physician, told the 20 people huddled on the green. The first is to “honor and commemorate the loss of 26 lives a year ago today, just about this time of day,” he said. The second is to reflect on the problem of gun violence in the country and call attention to “a major public health issue.”

Each year, 100,000 Americans are shot, he said. Of those, about a third die.

At least seven vigils were held in the Upper Valley in the past week to honor those killed in the Newtown shooting. In addition to the Quechee event, vigils in Weathersfield, Woodstock, Hartland, Springfield, Thetford and Norwich were among 26 held across the state in the past several days by Gun Sense Vermont. The nonprofit coalition of Vermonters, which includes those who own guns and those who don’t, describes its mission as “working to keep guns out of the wrong hands.”

The Vermont vigils included a reading of the names and ages of those killed, and of the “Sandy Hook Promise.” Written by parents of the slain children soon after the massacre, the promise is a pledge to work toward reducing gun violence in the United States.

At dusk Saturday, seven people gathered on the front lawn of the United Church of Thetford. Should they ring the bell 26 times, they wondered, or 28? The Rev. Gail Dimick, pastor at the church, mentioned a story she had heard on NPR that morning about Nelba Marquez-Greene, whose daughter, Ana Grace, died in the shooting. Marquez-Greene described preparing for a conference for the Ana Grace Project, which promotes love, compassion and community for children and their families.

“Do we have a table with 26 candles, or do we have a table with 28?” she had wondered. “We put 28, because at the end of the day, it’s a gesture of the compassion that we need to move forward.”

“I would vote that we honor that mother,” said Chris Wiencke, a Thetford resident who attended yesterday’s vigil with her husband, Matthew, and son Eliott Jones. After the candles were lit, the names and promise read, the group walked slowly into the church entryway. There, Eliott, 10, and his father rang the bell together.

In Norwich, about 30 people gathered Saturday afternoon for a vigil on the town green. After the ceremony, Norwich sisters Lizzie and Ginny Gray were among those talking quietly in small groups. Why had they chosen to stand in the cold for more than an hour?

It seemed like a good first step to raise awareness of gun violence, Ginny Gray said. “We just wanted to show that it was something that mattered, and the best way to do that was to show up,” Lizzie Gray said.

In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, many people thought the federal government might be forced to tighten gun control laws. A month after Sandy Hook, President Obama signed a list of 23 executive actions designed to curb gun violence, but Congress has declined to pass any new gun control measures. Now, the debate is playing out at the state level. According to Bloomberg News, in the past year, 28 states passed laws lifting firearms restrictions, and 21, along with the District of Columbia, passed laws expanding them.

Several people involved with yesterday’s events said that to prevent gun violence, broad societal change is needed. Myrna Brooks, of Quechee, organized the vigil there with her husband, Dick Brooks, and several others.

Legislative changes help shape behavior in society, but ultimately, “it’s probably the collective thinking of us as citizens that will change the attitude toward misuse of guns and gun violence,” she said in a telephone interview last week. “By that I mean, if all the parents begin asking when children go on a play date, ‘Are there guns stored in the house, and are they stored safely?’ and increase awareness.”

She compared their efforts to public health campaigns around smoking up in public places.

“People will say to me, ‘Well, this is too big. It can’t be changed,’ ” she said. “We used to think that about smoking as well.”

Kathleen Shepherd, who organized the Norwich vigil, said it was an occasion “definitely of sadness and solidarity” with the families of those killed. “We are not politicizing … these events because it’s too horrible a time,” she said in a telephone interview last week.

Shepherd was one of the founding members of Communities Against Assault Weapons, an Upper Valley organization that formed after the shooting. The group is now part of Gun Sense Vermont.

“A year ago, the panic and rage was about assault weapons because of the very great number of deaths that can be caused in a short time,” she said. “We have found that that is probably not the most practical route to take.”

Now, the group is emphasizing gun safety, including storage, registration and background checks, and the “removal of guns from people who shouldn’t have them,” such felons and people involved in domestic violence cases, she said. “We figure we’re in this for the very long run. It’s going to be a cultural change over time.”

During the past year, dueling fears — of continuing gun violence, infringements on patient privacy and restricted access to firearms — have permeated the discussion of gun violence. But even in their grief, the authors of the Sandy Hook Promise foresaw and tried to address the divisiveness. One of the observations in the document is that “even those with the most opposing views can debate in good will.”

Their focus on love and hope was noted throughout the day.

“That’s a wonderful thing for these people to have created,” said Bob Steinberg, after reading aloud the Promise at the Quechee vigil. “Without anger, but with thought.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at or 603-727-3210.

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