Po Murray is the co-founder of the Newtown Action Alliance, an all-volunteer grassroots advocacy organization that formed after a shooter killed 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012. She is also on the advisory board for Survivors Empowered.
How did the Newtown Action Alliance begin?
My neighbor shot the 20 children and six educators. When that happened in our community, it was heartbreaking and we knew instantly that we needed to get involved. So, many of our community members came together to form the Newtown Action Alliance and we decided that we were going to work for legislative and cultural changes to end the gun-violence crisis in our nation. We sat around the library meeting room and spoke about what we needed to do. Most people said, “Ban weapons of war.”
In the wake of the shooting, what shocked you in terms of gun laws?
Many things shocked me. The shooter shot his mother in her bed before he went to the school. We live in one of the safest communities in the country. One of the reasons why we moved here to raise our four children is because we could feel comfortable that our children would be safe if they walked to a friend’s house up the road. So, it was shocking to learn that a fellow neighbor would stockpile weapons of war and thousands of rounds of ammunition in his home. It was also shocking to me that we didn’t have universal background checks and that weapons of war, like the AR-15 that was used here, were readily available for civilians. I was shocked to learn that the federal laws and the state laws were so weak that civilians could own weapons of war that could cause significant harm to families and communities.
How much progress has there been on the federal level since Newtown?
Although we have not seen federal legislation passed in 27 years, there has been some incremental progress on the federal level. The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and NIH [National Institutes of Health] are allowed to study gun violence and there has been a national conversation on gun violence prevention on a level that we have not had before the Sandy Hook tragedy. And the gun violence prevention movement is larger than ever before. More and more Americans are becoming single-issue voters on gun violence prevention and we can mobilize voters to come out and vote for this issue. During the 2020 election, Joe Biden put forth the strongest gun violence prevention platform in modern history. Right now, we expect results.
What results would you like to see?
We’ve always believed that gun violence prevention is a complex problem that requires a comprehensive solution, so we appreciate President Biden taking steps, via executive actions, to regulate ghost guns and provide significant funding for community violence-intervention programs. There are so many other actions that are needed to end all forms of gun violence, and legislative solutions are absolutely necessary. So, we have been pushing President Biden and the Senate Democrats to support ending the filibuster so that we can pass the universal background check bill that is supported by 90 percent of Americans and other legislative proposals such as an assault weapons ban and repealing the gun industry legal shield [the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act].
Why to you think the prevention movement is drawing more supporters?
I think what happened after Sandy Hook was the idea that this is not just an issue that impacts our Black and brown communities — that gun violence can impact people who live in white communities like Sandy Hook and Parkland and Aurora. With that recognition, I think more and more families, particularly moms and dads, are getting engaged on this issue, and more and more young people are getting involved. Our children are traumatized and living in fear of getting shot in their schools or malls or movie theaters. We have a whole generation that is being traumatized continually by gun violence.
How important are gun violence survivors to spurring change?
Survivors being front and center in the fight to create legislative and cultural changes are critical. It’s important to get more of their stories out to change hearts and minds. I find that’s the best way for us to try to create change. Often, when we go to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress, we bring families who have been directly impacted by gun violence because their stories are compelling.