By Linley Sanders
Joseph Theodore “JT” Lewis, 19, believes that people have three options after experiencing a massive tragedy: deny that it happened, do absolutely nothing, or try to make the world a better place. He’s aiming for that last one.
Seven years ago, his younger brother Jesse was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Lewis was 12 when the perpetrator entered his 6-year-old brother’s first grade classroom and began shooting. Jesse shouted for his classmates to run as he remained by his teacher’s side, saving nine of his classmates’ lives.
Now, Lewis, a full-time political science major at the University of Connecticut, is running for state Senate in Connecticut’s 28th district as a Republican and Second Amendment-supporting school safety advocate. Rather than banning guns, Lewis proposes more guns in schools — via armed guards, a policy with no conclusive evidential support — and stronger federal background checks.
His opponent is incumbent Republican Tony Hwang, who served in the state House of Representatives when the Sandy Hook shooting took place; his district included part of Newton. He joined the state Senate in 2018, winning over Democrat challenger Michelle Lapine McCabe, whose campaign earned endorsements from advocacy groups Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety, which were founded as a direct response to the local tragedy. Hwang’s reelection campaign focuses on fiscal conservatism, but he’s also supported liberal bans on bump stocks and gun storage regulation.
(In a statement provided to MTV News, Hwang says, “I appreciate and respect anyone's desire to run for public office. I love representing the people of the 28th district … I remain focused on working tirelessly in the state Senate to address issues of state fiscal accountability, social responsibility, and economic sustainability.” He also adds, “I am honored and privileged to serve as the State Senator and will continue to do all I can to be a voice our constituents can be proud of. I will always rise above accusations and political negatives.”)
Lewis says that after the Newton attack that left 20 children and six teachers dead, Connecticut had an opportunity to show the nation how to end mass shootings by strengthening background checks, expanding mental health resources, and implementing school safety measures. “We could have led the nation and showed how to prevent these shootings. We failed early on,” he says. “Now, almost seven years later, we still have a chance to become the icon for the rest of the nation.” Perpetrators continue to carry out mass shootings across America, and Lewis says it’s partially because old leadership did not do enough to advocate for school safety measures immediately after the Sandy Hook shooting.
Lewis talks to MTV News about how he will make Connecticut a model for school safety in America — and why young Republicans are key to undoing the missteps of their older counterparts.
MTV News: You tell the story of losing Jesse in your campaign video. Your mother later called State Senator Tony Hwang, who at the time served in the House, about her [Choose Love] initiative and did not get a call back. The senator has since apologized to you. What should elected officials do in the wake of mass shootings?
Lewis: Well, first of all, it shouldn't be done in the wake of mass shootings, it should be done proactively before it even happens. That's the big thing. But I don't want this whole campaign to be a fight between me and [Senator Hwang] because that's not what it's about. It's about the fresh new ideas I'm going to bring [to] Connecticut.
After a mass shooting, the rest of the country's looking at how you're going to react to that. [Connecticut] should have committed to three angles: gun regulation, mental health, and school safety measures. That's something I hope I can do: Bring people to the table and have these tough conversations on big issues.
MTV News: Let’s talk about specifics. I know you focus a lot on school safety measures to protect against mass shootings practically. You mentioned some gun regulations — which ones do you support?
Lewis: One of the big things is background checks. There's some tweaking that needs to happen on a national level with the background check bills, but I think that's obviously something we have to have a vote on when it has such strong support.
As far as the whole gun control battle goes, I've watched it play out since the Sandy Hook shooting, when it became a personal thing for me. All those people get up and they start fighting for gun control. And really, on a national level since Columbine, not much has been done. But the way I look at it is that, in those 20 years, we've had four presidents: [Bill] Clinton, [George W.] Bush, [Barack] Obama, and [Donald] Trump. After every mass shooting, we’ve looked to the president to do something, and for the large part, they haven't.
So, I'm at this mindset right now that maybe we're looking at the wrong person. Maybe we need to start looking at ourselves. Maybe this is something that happens at the grassroots with a change of mindset, in the community, and in the family life.
MTV News: There have been Republican lawmakers who oppose the background check bills and the NRA strongly lobbies against it. How do you navigate your identity as a Republican when it comes to the issue that so many current Republican lawmakers seem unwaveringly opposed to?
Lewis: If you listen to the Republicans who are against individual bills, they believe that a lot of these mass shootings can’t be avoided with background checks. I think a lot of them don't support it because [the bills] don't address the underlying issues that lead to mass shootings. But again, it is something that’s supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans, who just want something done.
I don't really even get involved with it, I try to focus on things that are bipartisan ... because whether we like it or not, there's 350 million [guns] in this country, and it's been a cultural thing for 250 years now. It’s not something you take away overnight, nor a problem that gets solved overnight.
MTV News: You worked with President Trump on the Federal School Safety Report, which encourages schools to train and arm school personnel. Do you agree with the full report?
Lewis: It's not 100 percent perfect, but it is a great first step in the school safety movement. The thing I don't agree with is the arming of teachers. I don't know why we can't agree that's not a great idea. But if you put that aside — and I think most of the governors did — that was a great first step toward securing schools in America. That report was put on every governor's desk, and now they have all these ideas and money from the STOP School Violence Act.
MTV News: So you don’t support arming teachers, but you do support improving the federal background check system. What specific measures do you believe would improve school safety?
Lewis: I do support having police officers or some sort of highly trained armed guard in the schools. At Sandy Hook, there was nothing. The principal had to confront [the perpetrator] in the lobby. That's not fair to kids, to not give them a fighting chance. So, I'd love to see police or armed professionals in schools. My brother saved nine of his classmates and then stood up to the shooter. But that's not something he should have needed to do. It's something that trained professionals should do.
After Sandy Hook, all the Newtown schools in the district added police and guards to the schools. We have cameras, we have police guards, things like doors that locked from the inside — things that you think are so simple, but we didn't have when Sandy Hook happened. So, those are very important things that I've been supporting and fighting for.
MTV News: There are a handful of instances where armed guards have helped stop mass shootings, but there’s little proof that even highly trained armed guards deter active shooters. There was an armed guard outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at the time of its attack, and there have been reports that young people who survived the shooting feel further traumatized by armed guards who were put in place after it. Why is this the plan that makes the most sense to you, given all of that information?
Lewis: Again, it’s going to be everything coupled together. Stoneman Douglas is such a different scenario because they had a guard patrolling many different buildings. That’s a lot to protect for one guy, and I think they had other security officers, but he failed. And that’s a horrible example that people use to go after armed guards, and it’s disappointing that he turned people off to the idea. I truly believe that if you get the right person with the right training … it's still a very important measure to take.
[Editor’s note: Scot Peterson, the guard on duty at MSD during the shooting, is currently on trial, after an investigation unearthed video footage that showed him retreating away from gunshots rather than entering a building that the perpetrator had targeted.]
MTV News: Do you worry about such measures further traumatizing young people?
Lewis: I don't. I’ve talked to a lot of my friends at school about this, and they agree with me. Most of them know that it's there for our own safety. For example, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, we implemented all these security measures in airports. You don't just get on a plane anymore, willy nilly. I'm 19, but at first, I would imagine it was uncomfortable for people. Then we got used to it, and now it's just a way of life. I think that's going to, unfortunately, be the same thing for schools until we can figure it out.
MTV News: You talk a lot about mental health to address gun violence. What proposals do you have for Connecticut to help deal with mental health?
Lewis: You have to get everyone, especially young people when their minds are so easily molded. My mom's program is Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, and I'm going to highlight it in my campaign and when I'm a state senator. Basically, when Jesse died, we found a message on our kitchen chalkboard: “Nurturing, Healing, Love.” Jesse wrote that the week before he died, and we only found it after the shooting on our kitchen chalkboard. She's taken that message and spread it. Her program is now in all 50 states, [and] it just hit 80 countries the other day and over a million kids, which is pretty amazing.
MTV News: You’re in a pretty blue state. Classmates, coworkers, people who don't necessarily have the same conservative values that you do — how do you explain to them why you decided to run as a Republican and why that's such a big part of your identity?
Lewis: I've always been very interested in politics, and I try to look at both sides of the issue. Through my journeys and what I’ve learned, I’ve found that the Republican Party is the best fit for me. I agree with the way they are very staunch about protecting our constitutional rights. Following the Constitution is huge for me.
MTV News: You’ve said that you're part of the next generation of Republicans. What do you want Republicans to do better or to be known for moving forward?
Lewis: The big thing for me is going to be bringing both sides of the aisle together, something I don’t think Democrats or Republicans have done on a national level. I have my deeply seated beliefs that are very Republican [like a desire to fix Connecticut’s state debt problem], but I think that if you're going to get anything done, you need to bring people together, especially on such an important issue like school safety. I've been criticized as a one-issue candidate, which is not true ... But you know, the thing I say is, nothing matters if your kid is dead. Nothing matters. It's very simple. We need to fix this first. You're not safe in your schools, you're not safe in your communities, nothing else matters. This is a huge issue.
As far as the new generation of Republicans, the values that are different with me — and I don't think Republicans are racist or homophobic — but, I'd love to see more inclusiveness in the Republican Party. You see it from the older generation where they're not quite in tune with 2019. I think that's something we are starting to fix about the party, we're starting to become a more inclusive party, which is great.
MTV News: Do you support LGBTQ+ civil rights, which many people identify as a liberal issue?
Lewis: Absolutely. I was doing a CNN interview recently and I was in the green room with a Southern Republican, far-right, church-going man. He was very anti-gay, and I tried to spend 30 minutes explaining to him that we should just try to love everyone, as the Bible says.
I couldn't really get through to him, and that was disappointing. This is very stereotypical, but somewhat true: a lot of Republicans still hold those views... That's disappointing to know that's associated with the Republican Party. There are obviously people on the left, too, in that generation, but it is disappointing. I just spend a lot of time trying to talk to people and introduce them to these new progressive ideas. And I think they’ll come around, hopefully.
MTV News: Do you consider yourself a Trump supporter?
Lewis: I'm a school safety supporter and the President is too, and that's why we've aligned on that issue. Obviously, I don’t support everything he does. But, I have supported Trump in his efforts on school safety.
MTV News: We are seeing a lot of young people who want to get into politics via primary challenges against Republicans and Democrats alike. How do you think that will change America’s political landscape?
Lewis: It's bringing freshness into both parties and new ideas. Obviously, the old ideas haven't been working, especially on certain issues like school safety and gun control.
A week after I announced my campaign, Senator Hwang got $80,000 passed in school safety funding for Fairfield schools, which is his hometown. It took a 19-year-old to challenge him to get him to protect kids in his own district. That was awful; it's obviously too little, too late. But I'm glad to see that my campaign is already waking up politicians in Connecticut and around the country. Politicians are starting to realize that young people are here. And if they don't get up and start to act, we’re going to replace them. It's that simple.
This interview was conducted in two parts. It has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.