Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.
Donald Trump, the former reality-show host turned Republican presidential nominee, uttered those very words to Alex Jones during an appearance on the round Texan’s Infowars program in December. Jones—for the blissfully uninitiated—is an alt-right conspiracy theorist who believes the United States government was behind the Oklahoma City bombing, the September 11 attacks, and is poisoning our drinking water in order to turn American citizens gay.
He is also, by his own admission, a close adviser to candidate Trump.
Jones’s most despicable theory is his belief that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged. On Dec. 14, 2012, Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 young children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
“Sandy Hook is a synthetic completely fake with actors, in my view, manufactured,” said Jones on the Jan. 13, 2015, edition of his radio show. “I couldn’t believe it at first. I knew they had actors there, clearly, but I thought they killed some real kids. And it just shows how bold they are, that they clearly used actors.” (There is absolutely no evidence to support this odious claim.)
Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, condemned his disturbing alliance with Jones in an Aug. 25 speech targeting the alt-right, along with an anti-Trump ad released by the Clinton campaign on Oct. 16.
Mark Barden, whose 7-year-old son Daniel was murdered in the Sandy Hook shooting, is also appalled by the cozy relationship between Trump and Jones.
“The Republican presidential nominee of the United States is being advised by a delusional sociopath. It speaks for itself,” Barden tells me. “What else can you say about that? It’s disgusting.”
The occasion for our chat is Newtown, Kim A. Snyder’s heartrending documentary—one of the very best of the year, in fact—that follows the parents, first responders, and school staff as they deal with the aftermath of that horrific day at Sandy Hook Elementary. Snyder’s film delicately articulates the concentric circles of impact, as we witness the tragedy’s toll on this once-idyllic, tight-knit community. Most of the film’s screen time is devoted to Barden, a loving, sympathetic father and husband by day and a musician by night. Daniel was the youngest of three children he had with his wife, Jackie, and the loss still haunts him.
“This is almost four years now, so for everyone else it’s kind of ancient history. But our particular journey through this has not been one of creeping in and out of consciousness,” says Barden. “Every second of the day I am forced to consider the fact that my sweet little Daniel is gone and he’s gone forever, and he’s gone because someone shot him to death. Those are the recurring themes that I live with every waking and sleeping moment. It’s unrelenting.”
The couple used to go for long walks around the neighborhood, counting their blessings that they were able to live in such a picturesque place filled with the friendliest of people. “In the wake of this unspeakable tragedy, it’s been the experience of my wife and me that this community has wrapped itself around us with love and support in a way that I didn’t even know was possible,” he says.
Newtown’s opening chapters are devoted to testimonials from grieving parents who lost their children in the tragedy, and the effect is devastating. At around 9 a.m. on the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, Lanza, a deeply troubled young man with Asperger’s syndrome, shot his mother, Nancy, in the head. He proceeded to take her car and, armed with two semiautomatic pistols, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a Bushmaster XM-15 E2S semiautomatic rifle, drive five miles to Sandy Hook Elementary School. There, he targeted two of the school’s first-grade classrooms, killing 14 children in one and six in the other, along with six adults. After firing 154 rounds, Lanza turned the gun on himself.
Many of the parents interviewed in Snyder’s film lay part of the blame on Lanza’s parents—in particular his mother, who’d not only neglected to seek the proper treatment for her disturbed son, but also encouraged the 20-year-old’s gun fetish. Their home was a veritable armory, filled with multiple weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Police even discovered a gun safe in Lanza’s bedroom.
“I definitely hold both parents responsible. They absolutely were partially negligent,” says Barden. “I think they made some really bad choices and lacked a fundamental understanding of what their child was dealing with, and how to manage that. I think it should be a wake-up call for parents across America to be intimately in touch with their children and more proactive with how they are living their lives.”
In the wake of the shooting, the Sandy Hook families filed a lawsuit against Remington, the gun manufacturer responsible for the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, alleging “negligent entrustment”—or that the gun maker knew of the risks posed by the deadly semiautomatic weapon yet sold them to the private citizens anyway. Just last week, a Connecticut judge dismissed the suit citing the PLCAA, or Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (the families plan to appeal).
They’ve also gone toe-to-toe with the National Rifle Association, fighting for common-sense gun-law reforms—including closing the gun-show loophole and calling for more extensive background checks.
“The thing to know about the NRA is that the majority of the membership does not agree with what the leadership is doing, or the way they’re doing it,” says Barden. “Most of the membership of that organization would agree that we can do a better job of modest reforms around firearm ownership. The NRA is not the organization it once was. The organization used to be an honorable hunter-sportsman group that promoted firearm safety, and they’ve subsequently morphed into nothing more than a lobby for the gun manufacturing industry with the sole intent of selling more units for the almighty dollar. It’s unfortunate that they use fear to increase their profit margin—no matter what the cost.”
He pauses. “After a mass shooting, the NRA jumps on it and tries to capitalize on it by selling more units—which is despicable. The whole notion of ‘more guns will make us safer’ is a fallacy every way you look at it, whether philosophically or statistically. Who’s the ‘good guy with the gun?’ Is it an undercover officer? A vigilante? Who knows who that is? If you play it out, it just doesn’t work. If you allow yourself to be fed that and act on it, then you’re part of the problem.”
Barden and many of the other Sandy Hook families have also formed Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to honor all victims of gun violence by turning our tragedy into a moment of transformation by providing programs and practices that protect children from gun violence.” Sandy Hook Promise helps to train teachers, students, and parents to “know the signs” of a troubled person and then take the necessary steps to get that person the help they need before it turns into a tragedy. So far they have trained one million students.
“I look back to December 13, to the days, the weeks, the months before my sweet little Daniel was murdered,” says an emotional Barden, who serves as the advocacy director for Sandy Hook Promise. “I think of all the signs and the signals that were offered where somebody who was trained could have intervened and changed that trajectory. I want to be able to do that for other families.”
In January, Barden introduced President Obama as he unveiled new executive actions to reduce gun violence—including improving background checks, providing 200 more ATF agents to help enforce existing gun laws, researching smart gun technology, and investing $500 million in mental-health care. Barden commends Obama’s efforts to implement modest, common-sense gun reforms, saying he feels “a fatherly kinship with him,” while criticizing the “intransigent Congress,” many of whom seem beholden to the gun lobby.
The 2016 election is also a consequential one when it comes to gun laws. On one side you have Hillary Clinton, who’s fought for gun control her entire political career, and on the other you have Donald Trump, who’s not only aligned himself with a deplorable Sandy Hook truther and been endorsed by the NRA, but also wants to make concealed-carry permits valid nationwide, and believes more guns—not fewer—are the key to reducing gun violence in America.
“The voters need to look into their hearts and see it for what it is,” says Barden. “They need to look beyond the fear-mongering and the lies that the gun lobby sells to its constituents with the sole interest of profiting off their misinformation and lack of education on the issue. Americans need to look into their hearts, educate themselves on this issue, and vote accordingly.”