It’s been eight years since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that killed 20 children and six educators. A new generation of activists have come of age since then. Some are trying to change gun laws on local levels — including in Newtown.
Riley Burns is a senior at Newtown High School. She’s co-chair of the Junior Newtown Action Alliance. She said she hesitated to join as a freshman — she says a lot of her classmates thought the group was trying to take away gun rights. But then came the 2018 Parkland shooting.
“And that’s when I realized that I needed to stop caring about what some of my friends — rather, people — might think and really start having a voice and trying to make change,” Burns said.
The group is the junior wing of an activist organization founded after the shooting in 2012. The Newtown Action Alliance has pushed for stricter gun control measures at every level of government — measures like universal background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition.
And — being an activist group — they also hold protests. And their protests sometimes draw counter-protests.
“People will show up with guns almost, like, to intimidate our side. I don’t understand what goes through someone’s mind, where’s it’s like, these people are peacefully protesting. I know, I’m gonna bring a lethal weapon to go scare them away,” Burns said.
So for a few years, the Junior Newtown Action Alliance has also pushed Newtown’s local government for measures that would ban the open-carry of guns in town. Riley isn’t a survivor of the shooting, but she said a lot of her friends are.
“Being in Newtown and seeing open-carry guns, you never know who the person could be. Like, I know some of my friends, if they see a gun, they will have panic attacks. They’ll break down crying,” Burns said.
The group prepared three measures — one that would ban guns on town property, and two that would ban open-carry more generally. The local issue came to a head at an often contentious town meeting earlier this month — held on Zoom.
“It’s just one more thing they’re trying to do to take away our rights,” said Newtown resident Bill Michael. “There’s never been any problems in town — I mean, other of course than the disaster that happened back in 12/14. So to me, this is a farce.”
The council voted not to move the measures forward — although they sent one measure to the town’s attorney to review.
“Clearly this is an emotional issue…” said Council member Ryan Knapp.
He said the measure’s been brought up in Newtown before. And he said the town’s attorney is worried it might not be legal under state law. A spokesperson for the Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation agreed — and said the measures would limit personal freedoms.
Other Connecticut towns have similar bans in place, but Knapp said he worried Newtown’s connection to the shooting would lead to a legal challenge.
“If this ordinance were to be challenged, I think it would be done in Newtown. I think special interests on both sides of this issue have vested interest in challenging it in Newtown,” Knapp said.
Ian Ayres is a Yale Law School professor. He said the Connecticut Supreme Court has given cities and towns a lot of discretion when it comes to reasonable gun regulation.
“Even if a full ban were not implemented, it would make a lot of sense to at least allow people who want to come together in gun-free spaces to have that ability to do so,” Ayres said.
Ayres pointed to hundreds of cases of armed counter-protesters intimidating rallies and public events this year.
“Even if it’s not their intention, the effect of this can really burden the right of other groups. If you want to momentarily come together in a gun-free space, there’s nothing in Connecticut law that should stop that,” Ayres said.
Riley Burns — the high school activist — said she’s more hopeful these days. The election of President-Elect Joe Biden has made her optimistic about gun legislation on the federal level.
“But I also know that things start at a smaller scale. So if I want something to be changed, I need to start implementing the change and have it lead somewhere,” she said.
As for local laws in Newtown — Burns said she hopes another round of high schoolers will keep pushing for change after she goes to college.