NEWTOWN, Connecticut (Reuters) - In the days after a shooter killed 20 first graders and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, Tom Bittman resolved the town should come together to demand immediate action on guns.
A month later, the community leader sees things differently. He says guns are only part of the problem and Newtown has to address mental health and school safety issues as well.
The 19-year resident of Newtown is one of the founders of Sandy Hook Promise, a community group unveiled on Monday with the support of several grieving families.
In the month since the December 14 shooting, Bittman has met face-to-face with 24 of the 26 families who lost loved ones that day. The experience, he said, has left him convinced he must keep an open mind to help the community care for its own and pose questions, rather than rush to offer answers.
“We started off thinking, well this is about guns,” Bittman told Reuters in an interview. “I think that’s sort of the natural, knee-jerk reaction to this. That’s not where I think we’ve ended up.”
“I think what’s happening is we have too many knee-jerk reactions, and we don’t what to do that,” Bittman continued. “It’s been 30 days.”
The group, which took its name from Sandy Hook Elementary School, where the massacre unfolded, aims to take an inclusive approach to the killings, which plunged the rural New England town of 27,000 into grief and shocked the country.
In announcing its effort, the group faced questions from reporters about why it was not taking a concrete stance on gun control and mental health care reforms being proposed in the state legislature and in Washington.
Bittman said the group would aim to drive a national conversation on three issues: gun regulation, mental health, and school safety. “Gun responsibility” will “absolutely” be part of the solution, he said.
Sandy Hook Promise is an outgrowth of Newtown United, a group that Bittman and several dozen other Newtown residents formed in the immediate aftermath of the massacre. Bittman, whose three children, who range from 13 to 21 years old, attended Sandy Hook Elementary School, has deep roots in the community, and was profoundly impacted by the shooting.
The group’s purpose was to make positive use of the enormous media attention trained on Newtown, and it aimed to ensure that Newtown would go down in history not as just the latest American community to be victimized by a mass shooting, but as the place where community-members rose to action.
Over the next days and weeks, Bittman, acting as a representative of the group, met personally with families.
Sometimes he was accompanied by a local rabbi and a representative from a group called My Sandy Hook Family Fund, which is providing financial help and services, like help with the laundry, to grieving families. In other visits, Bittman sat alone with the families.
“I felt like a priest,” said Bittman, who is 51 and works as an informational technology industry analyst.
“It’s been a huge challenge. It’s been extremely emotional,” he said. “Everybody is at a different state and that’s something I had to learn right away.”
Among parents ready to talk, Bittman said many brought up mental health care as something they hoped to address.
The experience, Bittman said, has convinced him to come at the issues that come out of the Newtown shooting with an open mind and hardened his resolve to find common ground with those who disagree with his conclusions.
“We’re talking about the next six years. The next ten years,” said Bittman. “We see this as a marathon.”
Reporting By Edith Honan; editing by Andrew Hay