My remarks as delivered at the Sandy Hook Promise Gala on December 6, 2022 at the Ziegfeld Ballroom in New York City, NY.
Good evening, everybody. What an honor it is to be with all of you. And I want to thank my friends, Mark and Nicole, for inviting me here tonight. I also want to thank that choir, which was outstanding. I was listening downstage.
It’s been said that those we most deeply love, we can never truly lose, for they become part of us. Almost 10 years after an act of unspeakable violence shattered the quiet community of Newtown, the souls that were lost that day, those of 20 beautiful children and six courageous adults, their souls remain part of us.
I’ve said this before. I consider December 14th, 2012, the single darkest day of my presidency. The news from Sandy Hook Elementary was devastating. It was visceral, and like so many other people, I felt not just sorrow, but I felt anger, fury at a world that could allow such a thing to happen.
And in the days that followed, I joined you to remember your loved ones and offer what comfort I could. And the nation wept with you and prayed with you and vowed that you would not bear the burden alone.
Even then, we understood that mere words, no matter how sincere or well intentioned, could actually only do so much to ease that burden. And I did not presume to know what the families were going through in the immediate aftermath of that day. I do not presume to know now how you bore what must have surely seemed unbearable in the weeks, and months and years that followed. But each of the families, and not just those who are present here tonight, but all who were involved, they have borne that weight with strength and with grace.
To the families of Sandy Hook, you’ve drawn purpose from tragedy, and you’ve made meaning where there was none. Back when we were together in 2012, I said that Newtown would be remembered for the way that you looked out for each other, the way that you cared for one another, and the way that you loved one another. And, in fact, for a decade now, you have looked out for and cared for each other.
But more than that, you’ve also looked out for other children and other families all across the country. You made a solemn promise that you do everything in your power to make sure they never have to experience what you and your loved ones did.
And through this organization, you have upheld that promise, and you upheld it in such a remarkable way, not by teaching kids to be fearful or suspicious of each other and their classmates, but by showing them from a young age how to be friendly and welcoming, how to empathize with one another, how to create inclusive communities.
And by helping prevent the kind of social isolation that can lead to violence, Sandy Hook Promise is not just making school safer today, you’re creating better people, better citizens now and for generations to come. And that’s a remarkable achievement.
You’re also delivering results. As you saw in the video, as you heard earlier programs, like Say Hello and Say Something have already prevented 11 planned school shootings and dozens more acts of violence. And thanks in part to the tireless advocacy of Sandy Hook Promise Action Fund, states across the country, from Connecticut to California, have passed a host of gun violence prevention laws since 2012. And you’ve helped to shift public opinion so that it’s firmly on the side of progress.
Let’s admit it, the journey has not always been easy. Perhaps the most bitter disappointment of my time in office, the closest I came to being cynical was the utter failure of Congress to respond in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings. To see almost the entire GOP, but also a decent number of Democrats equivocate, and hem, and haw and filibuster, and ultimately bend, yet again, to pressure from the gun lobby.
And I would not have blamed the Sandy Hook families forgiving up after that. I wouldn’t have blamed them for falling into cynicism, and disgust and despair. But Mark and Nicole told me then that they would not give up, that ending gun violence would be their life’s work. And because they didn’t give up, because they and advocates from all across the country refused to give up, President Biden signed into law, just this year, the first major piece of federal gun safety legislation in nearly three decades. And that is a testimony to their efforts.
I do not have to tell anybody here tonight that our work is far from over. In 2022, there has not been a single week, not one without a mass shooting somewhere in America, every week. Outside a handful of failed states, we are unique among nations, in tolerating the proliferation of guns on our streets and allowing civilians to routinely purchase high-powered weapons of war. Nobody else does this. And those who profit from this commerce know how to feed our fear, and exploit our divisions, and distract us with specious arguments that carnage and mayhem are somehow the price of our freedom.
And even though most of us know better, even though not just the majority of Americans, but the majority of responsible gun owners understand that something fundamental needs to change, collectively, we still refuse to act on what the data and common sense tells us. So, we pretend that the sky high rates of gun violence in our society are somehow inevitable. We pretend that the proliferation of guns has nothing to do with the fact that on a per capita basis, we have three times more murders than Canada, four times more than France, seven times more than Australia, 26 times more than Japan.
We pretend that the best we can do for the families of Sandy Hook, and Uvalde, and Parkland, and Virginia Tech, and so many other communities is to tinker around the edges, and then offer rote recitations of our thoughts and our prayers when violence explodes once again.
I will admit it. I still get angry every time I read about the latest senseless shooting, whether it is in a church or a synagogue, in a grocery store or on a college campus, or in a home or on a city street. I still feel anger, and I hope you do, too. This is a celebration of extraordinary work by extraordinary people, but we should still feel some sense of outrage.
The good news is that of late, I’ve sensed that slowly, steadily, the tide may be turning, that we’re not just condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past, and that real change is possible. And I feel that way in no small part because of the people in this room, because of what the families of Sandy Hook have accomplished, because you have helped build a grassroots movement for change that is organized, and mobilized, and is practical and is strategic.
Ten years ago, we would have all understood if the families of Sandy Hook Elementary had simply asked for their privacy and closed themselves off from the world. The temptation must have been powerful.
But instead, you took unimaginable sorrow and channeled it into a righteous cause. And in the face of cruel conspiracy theorizing, and nasty partisan politics, and perhaps worst of all, inertia and indifference, and the TV cameras shifting to the latest distraction, you just kept on going. And you set an example of strength and resolve and grace which makes me very proud.
You make us proud.
And if they were here today, if they were here today, I know that Charlotte and Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Grace, Dylan, Madeline, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Benjamin, Avielle, Allison, Dawn, Mary, Vicki, Lauren, Rachel and Anne Marie, they would be proud of you, too.
So, thank you for giving so much of yourself to help build a country and a world that is worthy of their memory. Let’s keep it going. God bless you all.