It was Dec. 14, 2012, a day of rupture and unimaginable loss.
For these three women — a stay-at-home mom, a lawyer and a yoga instructor in different parts of the country — it was also the start of profound changes in their own lives. None had any connection to Newtown, nor had they given much thought to gun violence. Now they felt compelled to act.
Within months, they decided to devote themselves to a movement they knew little about, a choice that would alter their professional trajectories. Their journeys would be marked by flares of progress and days of heartbreak.
In the decade since Sandy Hook, mass killings — including repeated assaults on schools — have traumatized more American communities. The rate of gun homicides and suicides rose to a 28-year high last year. In June, the Supreme Court struck down century-old state-level restrictions on gun owners.
But the movement to combat the epidemic of gun violence grew, and continues to expand. New groups have mobilized young people across the country. More than a dozen states have passed laws to temporarily prevent people in crisis from accessing guns, and this year the first significant federal gun regulation in a generation was passed.
Nearly 10 years to the day after Sandy Hook, the women reflected on the unexpected turns their lives have taken, their feelings of failure and what keeps them going.
Each had messages for their younger selves. “I would just tell myself, the work is going to be really, really hard,” said Lefkowitz, now 39. She paused, briefly overcome with emotion. But “it’s going to become, in some way, your life’s work.”
‘My despair was not going to help anyone’
After the disbelief and the tears, there was shame.
In 2012, Pauliukonis had left her prior job as a high school English teacher in Parkville, Md., to raise her two young sons. She remembers weeping as she looked at the pictures of the children killed at Sandy Hook. She memorized their names.
She had always assumed that the country’s leaders would do something to prevent such tragedies. Now she felt an overwhelming regret, as though her passivity had made her complicit.
“I realized that I couldn’t turn away from this,” said Pauliukonis, 42. “But I did need to do more than just being upset, because my despair was not going to help anyone.”
Pauliukonis — whose only prior participation in politics was voting — became a full-time volunteer activist. The day after the shooting, she found a Facebook page created in response to the killings by Shannon Watts, a mother and former public relations executive living in Indiana. The group grew into a nationwide grass-roots organization: Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
Initially, Pauliukonis thought she would attend a few meetings, participate in a demonstration, perhaps help write a monthly newsletter. She did all those things — and kept saying yes to more. She met with her representatives in Congress and Annapolis, often pushing her double stroller. She organized events for fellow parents and activists.
In April 2013, she was sitting in the gallery of the Senate when the Obama administration’s push to expand background checks foundered. Two women near her yelled out, “Shame!” but Pauliukonis was shocked into silence. She had believed with all her heart, she said, that it would pass. She felt angry and realized how much she had to learn.
The next month, Pauliukonis went to a peace vigil for Carter Scott, a 1-year-old shot and killed in the Cherry Hill neighborhood of Baltimore. It was an event that would shape her work in the years to come, a reminder that the vast majority of gun violence is not mass shootings in predominantly White suburbs but daily homicides and suicides, many of them in disadvantaged communities.
Gradually Pauliukonis shifted her focus from the federal level, where gun-control legislation appeared blocked, to the state level, where progress seemed possible. She became the legislative director and then president of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence. One of her proudest accomplishments was helping to pass Maryland’s “red flag” law in 2018 to keep guns away from individuals deemed a danger to themselves or others.
She also completed a master’s degree in public health to deepen her understanding of the policies she was advocating. Today Pauliukonis is director of policy and programming at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.
Some days are extraordinarily hard. “There’s a kind of numbness that I think comes over you over time, that we can’t help,” she said. Then she feels anxious about growing numb to something so horrifying.
After the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex., earlier this year — which took place just days after a racist shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo — Pauliukonis wasn’t sure she could go to work.
The day after the shooting, she was scheduled to meet with policymakers in Delaware. As she sat in meetings that seemed like business as usual, she was torn. One part of her wanted to scream and stop everything. But she also felt the best thing she could do was to keep pushing forward.
In June, Pauliukonis was invited to the White House to celebrate the signing of the bipartisan gun legislation. There were more than 1,000 people gathered outside on the lawn, she said, a marked contrast with the “small but mighty” group that was sitting in the Senate gallery back in 2013.
Giving up is not an option. “I have no other choice but to try to prevent this from happening again,” Pauliukonis said. “I do not see another path for me.”
‘I think we’re making real headway’
After Lefkowitz graduated from law school in 2010, she began working at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, a large multinational firm headquartered in Manhattan.
For the next two years, she was immersed in complex commercial litigation. She spent months on a case connected to the Bernie Madoff scandal. The work was demanding and intellectually challenging, a perfect fit for Lefkowitz, who describes herself as competitive by nature.
She knew next to nothing about gun violence. If anything, she said, she had vaguely absorbed the talking points of groups such as the National Rifle Association, which insist that “good guys” must be armed.
The coverage of the Sandy Hook shooting, which she watched in horror from her desk, changed all that. It was “just so clearly something that does not happen anywhere else,” she said. “If guns made us safer, then we would be the safest country in the world.”
Lefkowitz, who never expected to stay in the corporate world, began to reevaluate what she was doing with her life.
She started applying for jobs within a small universe of groups combating gun violence. In late 2013, she was hired as a staff attorney at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. It meant moving to Washington and taking a pay cut of nearly three-quarters.
But Lefkowitz loved the work. Her first week on the job, she was asked to write an amicus brief in defense of an assault weapons ban instituted by the city of Highland Park, Ill. She stayed up until 3 or 4 in the morning preparing, reading everything she could on the Second Amendment.
Over time, she has been part of a dramatic expansion of the legal work done by gun violence prevention groups. In 2017, when she joined Everytown Law, she was one of three litigators; now she is one of 22.
Today Lefkowitz represents victims of shootings as well as cities struggling with the gun violence epidemic. Her focus is finding ways to hold manufacturers and purveyors of guns accountable despite a 2005 law that exempts the industry from many types of lawsuits.
In some ways, Lefkowitz said, being able to litigate is a kind of shield. She can concentrate on how to win a particular motion, or how to access a piece of evidence. “If I let myself slip and think about what happened on the day and how horrible it is, that’s very hard to handle,” she said.
The day of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Lefkowitz remembers staying at the office until 10 p.m. She spent hours researching the marketing practices of Smith & Wesson, the maker of the AR-15-style weapon used in the killings. “I just felt like a failure that day,” Lefkowitz said.
Later she sat on a panel with one of the teenage Parkland survivors. During the question-and-answer session, a 10-year-old boy stood up and addressed the survivor.
“He says, ‘I really admire what you do, but what can kids my own age do to prevent this?’” Lefkowitz recalled. She had to turn her head away from the audience to hide her tears.
One of her current clients, who just turned 18, was shot at age 15 in her high school. Lefkowitz is helping her sue the online seller of the untraceable “ghost gun” used in the shooting for negligent marketing practices. Her client has turned her trauma into activism, Lefkowitz said.
“The way people get brought into the movement is heartbreaking,” she said. But “I think we’re making real headway.”
‘You never know when politics are going to change’
Where Gustafson grew up in rural Iowa, rifles and shotguns were part of everyday life. They were useful tools, or sometimes, a kind of insurance when the nearest police officers were far away. On her first date in high school, the boy who picked her up had a gun rack on his truck: it was hunting season.
Gustafson was at home getting ready for Christmas when she saw the images from Newtown on her television screen. The elementary school there looked eerily like the one where she was about to pick up her own children.
That night, she told her husband that she wasn’t sure how to get involved, but she knew she had to try. It wasn’t until several months later that the stay-at-home mom and yoga instructor came across the group founded by Watts. They were holding a meeting in Denver in July. Gustafson decided to go.
In Denver, one of her fellow attendees asked Gustafson — then a gun owner and a conservative-leaning independent voter — what she thought of the event. Gustafson said it reminded her of a Christian women’s retreat, but “with a lot more swearing and drinking.”
Gustafson, who lives in Ankeny, a suburb of Des Moines, threw herself into volunteer work for the Iowa chapter of Moms Demand Action. Later she became its leader. She dragged her children to the State House so many times that they claimed they could identify its smell — musty, like old newspapers.
At a national conference of Moms Demand Action in 2017, Gustafson was asked to speak before an audience of 1,000 people about an initiative she had started called “camo moms” for volunteers in rural areas. “One, a lot of people in rural America wear camo,” she said, and two, such volunteers are “kind of camouflaged in their communities.”
Over the years, Gustafson said, she saw the organization wrestle with how to be more inclusive. The group worked on “opening its doors to people other than just White suburban moms,” she said, including reaching out to women of color, rural women, members of the LGBTQ community and men.
Gustafson, 46, felt unprepared for some of what she faced. Working on gun violence prevention means that “you’re plunged into a world of trauma,” she said. Gustafson still chokes up when she recalls the “outpouring of grief and fear” at the vigil held by the local LGBTQ community after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016. Strangers came up to her and embraced her, unable to stop crying because they knew people who had been shot.
In 2018, Gustafson shifted from activism to politics, running for state Senate as a Democrat in a district held by Republicans for decades. Gustafson’s primary issue was reducing gun violence, while her opponent — the Iowa Senate majority leader — wanted to scrap the state’s mandatory permitting system for guns.
Gustafson said that her fellow Democrats were unnerved by her passion for gun regulations. “They didn’t know what to do with me,” she said with a laugh. They “never really had a candidate run on that issue in Iowa before.”
Although she lost — or “came in second,” as Gustafson likes to say — the race was close.
She went on to earn a master’s degree in communication with a focus on public affairs and advocacy. She started working for Common Good Iowa, a policy research institute that studies issues from climate change to nutrition, and was part of a coalition to maintain gun-control measures.
Meanwhile, Gustafson has seen nearly everything she worked for unravel. For years, she and other activists mobilized to defend Iowa’s system of requiring permits for gun owners against repeated Republican efforts to dismantle it.
Last year, Republicans enacted a law that eliminated the permit requirement. Gun rights groups achieved another significant victory last month, when Iowans approved an amendment to the state constitution that opponents say will make it nearly impossible to institute future restrictions on firearms.
While it is “discouraging to see my state move backwards in so many ways,” Gustafson said, the fight is not over.
She thinks about the long arc of the struggle for women’s suffrage, how it took seven decades from the start of the movement in Seneca Falls, N.Y., until the passage of the 19th Amendment.
She also takes heart from the knowledge that public opinion can shift more rapidly than anyone expects: Less than two decades separated the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned recognition of same-sex marriages, and the Supreme Court’s decision fully legalizing such unions.
“You never know when politics are going to change,” Gustafson said. “The worst possible thing you can do is give up hope.”