5 Years After Sandy Hook Tragedy, How 2 Dads Turned Grief Into Action

Dec 14, 2017
Originally published on December 19, 2017 9:41 am

Mark Barden lost his 6-year-old son, Daniel, at Sandy Hook. Greg Gibson lost his son, Galen, precisely 20 years before Sandy Hook at a school shooting in western Massachusetts. When the two dads met, they discovered not only that their sons died on the same calendar day, in the same horrible way, but that their boys also shared the same birthday.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Five years ago today, Daniel Barden, just 7 years old, was killed when a man opened fire at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Nineteen other children and six educators also died at Sandy Hook. After the shooting, Daniel's father, Mark Barden, connected with another man who had lost a son in a school shooting exactly two decades earlier. Anthony Brooks of member station WBUR brings us the story of these two fathers who turned their grief into action.

MARK BARDEN: This is a picture of my three children, James and Natalie and Daniel, hugging and smiling.

ANTHONY BROOKS, BYLINE: When I met Mark Barden, the first thing he did was show me this picture of his three kids, James, Natalie and Daniel, when they were 12, 10 and 6 - have big, wide smiles. Their dad says Daniel loved animals so much so that he and his wife, Jackie called him the caretaker of all living things. Mark Barden recalls that cold December morning five years ago when he walked his oldest son, James, down the driveway to catch the early school bus.

BARDEN: And I hear little footsteps behind me, and it's Daniel. And he was just out there in his little pajamas, put flip-flops on. I said, it's cold; what are you doing? He said, I want to come with you to the bus so I can hug James and tell him I love him.

BROOKS: Soon it was 7-year-old Daniel's turn to catch his bus to school.

BARDEN: Daniel and I enjoyed our little quiet alone time in that last hour. But we walked to the bus, and I hugged him and kissed him and told him I loved him.

BROOKS: Not long after that came the texts and the phone calls about a lockdown at Daniel's school, the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

BARDEN: You know, as the morning wore on, that's when we learned what had had happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Six-seven Sandy Hook School - caller's indicating she thinks there's someone shooting in the building.

BARDEN: And this sweet, little boy, the caretaker of all living things, the light of happiness in our little family, was among those 20 first-grade children who had been shot to death.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: The majority of those who died today were children, beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old.

BARDEN: You know, in those first weeks my wife, Jackie, and I would be collapsed on - literally on the floor in a heap just sobbing and crying, you know, both of us whispering to each other, I just want to die. And James and Natalie would come find us, and they would wrap their arms around us and bring us strength, which is kind of the reverse what you might think.

BROOKS: The Sandy Hook massacre shocked the nation. And it had a particular impact on the many survivors of mass shootings, among them Greg and Annie Gibson, whose son, Galen, was murdered on the same date as Daniel Barden, December 14, exactly 20 years earlier. Galen Gibson attended Simon's Rock College in western Massachusetts and was among two people shot dead by a fellow student armed with a semi-automatic rifle. So on the day of the Sandy Hook massacre, Greg Gibson, his wife and two surviving children were at their home north of Boston, remembering their son and brother on the anniversary of his death. Here's Greg Gibson.

GREG GIBSON: The whole family would set up a little Christmas tree on his grave. And I know it sounds like a mournful, sad thing, but actually it's joyous in a way. I mean, it's something the whole family still gets to do that includes Galen.

BROOKS: Then, Gibson says, they heard about Sandy Hook.

GIBSON: And right away our hearts flew to them because we knew what that moment was. And we knew what the next years would be like in some sense.

BROOKS: Gibson wanted to help, so he got in touch with someone who knew some of the Sandy Hook families and connected with Mark Barden. Within a few weeks, Gibson went to Newtown to talk to him. Mark Barden recalls that first meeting.

BARDEN: I just remember that being therapeutic for me. And I felt, here is somebody who didn't suffer this particular tragedy but can absolutely relate. And I just remember a lot of comfort in that.

BROOKS: Mark Barden says as they talked, the two men discovered a remarkable coincidence. Not only did their sons die on the same calendar day, they also shared the same birthday.

BARDEN: Which is just incredibly, amazingly coincidental. When you consider they both died the same way - violently, prematurely, in a hail of gunfire in a school - what does that tell you about our society?

GIBSON: People (laughter) - they're very happy to talk about what a weird coincidence it is.

BROOKS: But Greg Gibson says it's important to look beyond that weird coincidence.

GIBSON: They're so much more interested in that than in how we can stop this from happening again. That's the mystery to me.

BROOKS: The murder of his son sent Greg Gibson on a long journey that began with grief and rage. He wrote a book about it, "Gone Boy," and set up The Galen Gibson Fund to help survivors of gun violence and to push for stronger gun safety laws. The killer was a fellow student named Wayne Lo. During a psychotic episode, he bought a rifle at a local gun store and ordered ammunition and high-capacity magazines through the mail. Then, carrying more than 200 rounds, Lo shot six people, killing two of them, including Galen. Lo was sent to prison for life. And seven years after his shooting rampage, he wrote to Greg Gibson, expressed regret for what he did. He even made a contribution to The Galen Gibson Fund.

GIBSON: Look at this kid. He's in jail. He's figured out on his own how to at least make some token effort to repay what he's done. Is that a spiritual awakening? Yeah. I mean, maybe.

BROOKS: Or maybe it's just a con, Gibson says. Either way, a couple of months ago, Gibson agreed to meet Wayne Lo face to face for the first time. The oral history project Story Corps recorded their conversation. Greg Gibson says he came away believing that Wayne Lo's sense of remorse is real. But he says it's more important that his son's killer has something to say about America's problem with gun violence.

GIBSON: He said to me so many times, you know, the worst aspect of this whole thing was how easy it was. When I was as disturbed as I was or - that I thought I needed to kill people, I could still walk into a gun store and buy a gun and order ammunition. And the horror of it was the ease with which all this happened. So that's a powerful message.

BROOKS: Back in Newtown, Conn., Mark Barden is on a similar path. He co-founded Sandy Hook Promise, which teaches students, teachers and parents to recognize when someone might be on the verge of using a gun to harm others or themselves. The program has trained more than 2 million people in all 50 states. And Barden says he knows of at least one case in which the training headed off a potential shooting. But he finds it difficult every time another one occurs.

BARDEN: It brings back all kinds of horrible memories of the days following the massacre that took the life of my little Daniel. And I've used the word defeated. But I do know that the work that we are doing, that we have stopped school shootings. And all I can promise is that I will continue to honor my little Daniel.

BROOKS: For his part, Greg Gibson is trying to honor his son in a similar way.

GIBSON: Almost since the moment Galen was killed it's been my constant meditation and focus to take this terrible thing and find some good in it because if we can't and it drags us down, it wins. And that's not - you know, that's not supportable just out of respect to Galen or anybody who's died in this manner.

BROOKS: Greg Gibson says America's gun violence problem is like cancer, a disease that will take a long time to beat. Twenty years after the murder of his son, Galen, five years after the murder of Daniel Barden, the country is still looking for a cure. For NPR News, I'm Anthony Brooks.

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