On December 14, 2012, a young man entered Sandy Hook elementary school. Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza opened fire and fatally shot six adult staff members and 20 children between the ages of six and seven. The incident was the deadliest mass shooting at a high school or grade school in U.S. history.
Sarah Clements, who was a junior at Newtown High School at the time of the shooting, is the daughter of a Sandy Hook second-grade teacher who survived the shooting. Soon after the incident, Clements became a gun-control activist, using her experience to connect with other gun violence survivors and advocate for gun control legislation.
On the fifth anniversary of this tragic event, Clements spoke to MTV News about her experience, activist work, and thoughts on where the gun control movement must go from here:
Everybody in the Sandy Hook elementary school heard everything on the morning of December 14. Somebody turned on the P.A. system in the building. No one really knows if it was on purpose, to notify people about what was going on, or if it was an accident. But everybody, over 600 people, heard the hundreds of bullets that were fired no matter how close they physically were to what was going on.
When [the shooter] walked into the building, he turned left, and entered the front office and the first two classrooms there. If he had turned right, [he would have entered] my mom’s classroom. Thankfully, my mom and her whole class were safe and she was even able to pull in some people who were walking down the hallway by her room when [the shooting] began. But, again, 26 people were killed in their classrooms.
In the aftermath [of the shooting], mental health professionals [told] people in town [that] ‘time will help heal.’ I remember not even being able to fathom what five years out would look and feel like.
It is very surreal to me that we're five years out this week. I am a senior in college now and, for the most part, have been away from Newtown for the past four years. But there's still not a day that goes by that I don't think about it. There are little things my body still reacts to, whether it's a scent that reminds me of the days after the shooting or a door slam that makes me jump and look around the room to see where I'm going to hide.
At the time the shooting happened, I did not identify as an activist. I did not previously have background [education about gun violence], because I was living in an upper-middle class, predominately white Connecticut suburb. There was gun violence happening in towns next to me, but I was in this bubble and wasn't affected. People around me didn't talk about it until it came to our doorstep.
I will never forget watching Wayne LaPierre from the NRA say some of the most heinous things about my community — basically putting the blame on my mom and her colleagues — after the Sandy Hook shooting. So when I heard there was going to be a march in Washington D.C. called the March on Washington for Gun Control, I decided to go even though I had never been to a march before. I felt like I was waiting for something that I could grab onto — a positive way to heal and move forward and sort of transform our grief into something more positive.
My dad and I, and about 100 people from Newtown, went to D.C. and joined a gathering of thousands of people from all over the country to rally and march on Capitol Hill. It was the first time I met and heard real-life political activists and survivors from other shootings speak. I was able to stay in touch with them and became involved with some of the organizing happening back in Newtown.
Soon after, a huge groundswell of activists around the country decided to help put forth in Congress a gun package that addressed everything from closing background check loopholes, to making sure that law enforcement was able to crack down on what's called the ‘iron pipeline’ of gun trafficking in the United States, to limiting magazines, and banning certain styles of assault weapons.
In April 2013, just a few months after the Sandy Hook shooting, the first part of that gun package, the background checks bill, failed. It lost in the Senate. It was a complete shock to most people [who] expected that if 20 first-grade students are murdered in their classrooms, surely the least we can do is pass a background checks bill.
Activists went back to recalculate what we were politically capable of and for the past four or five years, the gun violence prevention movement has focused on the federal level — mostly on background checks and closing loopholes like the ‘domestic violence’ loophole, which allows misdemeanor stalkers and other forms of domestic abusers to not only keep their firearms but to purchase new ones even if they have those records.
It's been difficult to make changes in terms of gun laws for a few reasons. There's still a lot that needs to be done in terms of changing the norms about how we talk about gun culture and how we address toxic masculinity and militarism of citizens in the United States. The overarching culture of gun violence in the United States truly doesn't exist in other countries. The political landscape, specifically stalling that goes on in Congress, has also made it very difficult to make any sort of legislative change on any issue over the past few years. Many movements have been shifting their legislative focus to the states and to things like ballot initiatives.
I think the most urgent gun-related issue right now is the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, which just passed in the House last week. It basically says that if you live in a state that allows you to get a concealed carry permit — a permit that in some states allows you to carry a concealed weapon on you at all times in public without even having to go through training classes — you can still carry that weapon if you cross into a state that has stronger gun laws. It affects everybody because it creates a new national standard for concealed carry of weapons.
There are also many states right now that have either passed or are considering passing campus carry legislation, which means that college students could very well be allowed to carry a firearm in their backpack or on their body in the classroom, around campus, in academic buildings, etc., which creates a dangerous environment for students and faculty.
I think one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned is that all the work we do matters and translates to positive change. It's easy to forget that when mass shootings do continue to happen, when people do continue to die. But we have to remind ourselves that the arc of justice is very, very long. And while we might not see the change that we're fighting for in our lifetimes come to fruition, we have to remember that every little thing does count and every step forward is still a step forward.
This piece has been edited and condensed.