Galvanized by Newtown

12.19.12

Newtown Fuels Rise of Accidental Activists for Gun Control

An event producer. A former PR executive. A retired school teacher. They were so devastated by the slaughter of children in Connecticut that they swung into action against gun violence. Lloyd Grove reports.

Jerry Pagliari had no thought of becoming a gun-control crusader. Except for attending gay-rights marches, he didn’t even consider himself especially political.

But then Newtown happened.

Five days later, the 61-year-old Pagliari is among a growing army of “accidental activists” (as one of them, freelance television producer Staci Sarkin, has dubbed herself) who have leaped into the fray, determined to do anything they can, individually and collectively, to prevent another episode of deadly gun violence.

Since Dec. 14, a date that will live in infamy, they’ve been making their presence felt across the country, ranging from Pagliari, a New York–based corporate-event producer, to Sherri Masson, a 64-year-old Michigan grandmother and retired middle-school teacher, to Shannon Watts, a 41-year-old former corporate PR executive and mother of five in suburban Indianapolis.

“We need immediate action. We do not want this to fade,” says Watts, who was booked on Thomas Roberts’s 11 a.m. MSNBC program Wednesday to evangelize for the cause, which includes a federal ban on semiautomatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines of the kind that were used in last week’s carnage, as well as closing the so-called gun-show loophole that eliminates the background check otherwise required at licensed gun stores to vet the purchaser of a lethal weapon. Watts calls her fledgling effort “One Million Moms for Gun Control.” She explains: “We’ve had enough dialogue about what’s wrong and what we need. We can spend days debating the culture of violence and the other factors—but we want to create action quickly.”

Jerry Pagliari’s Friday began normally enough. He was at home in the Hudson River village of Rhinebeck and getting ready to go Christmas shopping when his partner texted him that something alarming had just occurred in Connecticut.

“I didn’t know anything about this,” Pagliari recalls. “I got in the car and turned on the radio. By the time I got to the bottom of the driveway, I had to pull over. I was just overcome.” Hearing the news of the mass shootings of children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Pagliari started to weep. “It was like a punch to the chest.”

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Benumbed and in a daze, he managed to drive himself across the river to the Macy’s in Kingston, but quickly realized “there was no way I was going to do any shopping. I ran into a friend, and we started talking to strangers. Getting into conversations with strangers—it’s an odd thing when something horrible happens, just like 9/11.”

The next morning, Pagliari somehow banished his feelings of powerlessness. “I knew I had to do something,” he says. “I happened to be on Facebook messaging with a friend who suggested I start a Facebook page.”

Which is exactly what he did. With the help of Patricia Soll, a fellow event producer who lives in New Jersey, he first issued a general invitation for a march on Washington on Feb. 17 to push for federal gun-control legislation (quickly attracting more than 750 supporters), and then joined forces with a larger Facebook community calling itself the “One Million Child March on DC for Gun Control.” By Tuesday night, the Million Child March had amassed more than 5,200 “likes”; the organizing effort was underway.

“Like everyone else, I was incredibly shocked and upset,” says Soll, a 60-year-old mother of two who has been volunteering with Pagliari to spread the word about the march and set up a steering committee. “And then I thought, how many more of these horrifying events do we have to go through as a nation before we decide to do something?”

On Friday, Staci Sarkin was at home in Manhattan, glued to television reports of the unfolding mayhem. “Like pretty much everybody else in America, I was completely shattered,” says Sarkin, 41, who produces programming for the MTV Networks. “Once I stopped crying, I ended up looking online for a petition. I couldn’t find anything so I went to signon.org and wrote something myself that was incredibly basic and probably not all that informed.”

“We need immediate action. We do not want this to fade.”

Sarkin’s petition for “Gun Control Now” starts: “Our second amendment rights are long overdue a reevaluation. How many more senseless and entirely PREVENTABLE shootings have to occur before we do something about Gun Control.” As of midnight Tuesday, Sarkin’s petition boasted more than 388,000 signers—an astonishing number, to be sure. Sarkin plans to travel to Washington soon to deliver it to Congress and the White House. She also created a Facebook page titled “Enough Is Enough.”

“I am an accidental activist,” Sarkin says, adding that on Tuesday she received an email from New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, obviously impressed with her dedication and wanting to talk. “I have never done anything like this before, so I am flying by the seat of my pants. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that so many people would sign my petition. I probably never even imagined I would write a petition in the first place.”

In contrast to Sarkin, Watts, and Pagliari, Sherri Masson has been pressing for federal gun-control legislation since the Million Mom March on the Washington Mall a dozen years ago. As a schoolteacher, she was “greatly affected by Columbine [the April 1999 massacre at a Colorado high school, in which 12 students and one teacher were shot and killed by two fellow students who then committed suicide] and moved to become quite active.”

Masson was experiencing mixed feelings on Tuesday: devastation because of Sandy Hook, but jubilation because Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder was compelled to veto a bill passed by the lame-duck Republican legislature—the day before the tragedy in Newtown—that would have permitted civilians to carry concealed weapons into schools, day-care centers, and hospitals.

Masson said there’s a dispiriting difference between the teachers and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary, six of whom gave their lives to protect their young charges, and Washington politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, who allowed the federal assault-weapons ban to lapse in 2004, and have continued to resist restrictive gun legislation.

“They haven’t got the guts to stand up to the NRA,” Masson said, referring to the National Rifle Association, the well-financed gun lobby that in the past has effectively blocked restrictive laws by influencing office-holders on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures. “But I wonder how powerful the NRA really is. I wonder if a lot of it is just bravado. They put a lot of money behind defeating Obama, and they didn’t do it. A lot of candidates they backed didn’t win … Perhaps they’re a paper tiger.”