Mardell: Newtown remembers the lost
- 12 December 2013
- From the section US & Canada
This week Newtown looks like an idealised picture on the front of a Christmas card.
Large snowflakes fall on the town's Christmas tree, the Victorian-style lampposts are draped with red ribbons and there are holly wreathes on the doors of the charming wooden houses.
But it must feel like a mocking travesty of a Christmas for many here.
Just like last year, when 20 of the town's children and six of the staff at the Sandy Hook Elementary School were murdered by a madman with a semi-automatic rifle.
Then I remember standing in front of 20 little Christmas trees - one for each of the children - hung with toys and tributes. Now there is nothing on the spot, and the school has been knocked down.
Last year there were cordons, replaced now by fierce notices: "Do not enter - no trespassing - violators will be prosecuted."
'A senseless tragedy'
Just outside this Connecticut town, on an icy hillside, relatives of those murdered gather to announce they've set up a website in memory of those they have lost.
Their agony is bare as they come to the microphone, one after another, to say they will be lighting a candle for their dead daughter or son, mother or sister. The words don't change much. The faces do.
Some are a tight rictus holding back the tears, others blank with suppressed pain, others still determinedly stoic.
Everyone here tells you each family suffers in a different way. But of course they all suffer.
The mother of Dylan, Nicole Hockley, whose father is British, tells me this anniversary will be a difficult day. But every day is difficult.
Of course, every day she remembers her son.
"He was six so I am never going to know what he could have been," she said. "I remember how he liked to cuddle, I remember how he felt.
"And I just feel it is my mission in life to honour him and the others who died and honour the thousands upon thousands who die ever year, every day to ensure that this is the changing point - that this doesn't keep happening - that mums don't have to feel the way that I do and that dads don't have to feel the way my husband does," she added.
"That this has to be the time, that this is not just a senseless tragedy. That something positive comes from it. I want Dylan's name to be linked with the positive change that saves the lives of others."
President Barack Obama called for new gun laws after this act of mass murder. Congress has rebuffed every single one.
A new momentum
Nichole Hockley is disappointed but says she doesn't back "gun control" and she doesn't want, as some do, a ban on military-style rifles.
"Its not just about the gun at the end of the day. The gun is the weapon that was chosen to kill my son and others at Sandy Hook Elementary," she said. "Certainly there are lots of common sense solutions required around gun safety - keep you guns locked up, make sure only people capable of having guns have them, report it if your gun is stolen."
But she says issues about mental health are just as important. There should be early intervention and programmes to stop people feeling isolated.
But she doesn't see why Congress couldn't have banned large ammunition magazines that can hold many bullets.
Connecticut has enacted such a ban on magazines of more than 10 rounds.
"The most lethal feature of a gun is the high-capacity magazine clips," she said. "When you look at a lot of states there, hunters don't have more than three or seven per clip because it is about being fair to the animals.
"I would like to see that same fairness given to humans," she added. "I've yet to hear a rational reason why anyone needs a magazine clip that holds more than 10 bullets because the whole purpose is to get out as many bullets in the shortest amount of time possible."
You would have thought campaigners might be downhearted that nothing has been done at a federal level since Sandy Hook, but they say not.
Others I spoke to say that they have a new momentum. They plan to focus on background checks for now, starting with the lowest possible demand.
They believe many politicians are simply scared of the power and money of the organised gun lobby and their task is to persuade them they have more to fear from Americans who do want change.
They say they have 18 million supporters, far outweighing the five million or so on the other side.
There is no doubt that many in Congress are making political calculations about donations and activists in their party. But this is yet another of those issues in the US which divides the country and where passions are very real, and heartfelt.
'A horrible thing'
At a gun shop about 40 miles (65km) away from Newtown, the owner Doug Odishoo tells me the place was packed after the killings. Customers were worried their favourite military-style weapons were about to be banned.
He says the flood of people buying up weapons has actually increased the danger.
"What they did now is open up the market for these new gun owners who have no knowledge of firearms and now these people are like 'I can't have that again... now I am going to buy one'," he said.
"Now they take it, throw it underneath the bed, throw it in the closet, no training, no nothing and these people are like 'What [do] I do with it now?'" he added.
"It ends up stolen, put out onto the street or someone doesn't know what they are doing and plays with it and harms themselves."
Connecticut has done what Congress would not do - it has outlawed clips of more than 10 bullets and Mr Odishoo is scornful of that.
"It was a horrible thing that happened to those children and I feel horrible for the families, but why are we going to ban an object? Why don't we go after mental health?," he asked. "The real issue is how many people have these weapons - millions of people - guns kill maybe .08% of people every year."
He strongly believes that guns are not only a part of America's constitution, they are also a part of its history and a bulwark against dictatorship - a frequently heard argument.
But he does insist that mental health is an issue and that people should be properly trained in using firearms.
There's no doubt guns are one of the issues that are central to the wide political gulf in America.
Compromise seems unlikely but Ms Hockley insists what she calls "a conversation" is possible with the focus on the safety of children.