Sandy Hook Promise's Mark Barden Will Never Stop Fighting

Daniel Barden was shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School. His father hasn't stopped working since.

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Editor’s note: This story was first published in 2017. Since then, the gun violence statistics have, tragically, trended upwards. In 2022 alone, there have been, according to the Gun Violence Archive, 628 mass shootings and 42,169 gun-related deaths. Mark’s story is no less important than it was when we published it four years ago — and he remains founder and CEO of Sandy Hook Promise where he works tirelessly to prevent further tragedies.

This is what editors call an evergreen story. It’s not pegged to the news cycle and therefore can be run or re-promoted to the readership whenever convenient. Typically, evergreen stories work because they lack urgency. This story, about slaughter, does not. Mark Barden, whose son Daniel was seven years old in 2012 when he was gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School, wakes up every day with a sense of urgency. But Mark would be the first to admit that all the urgent work he’s done with Sandy Hook Promise, the organization he helped find shortly after Daniel’s death, has not stopped shooters. There is urgency here, but it’s unclear what comes after that.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, 11,943 people have died as a result of gun violence and close to 25,000 have been injured since a shooter killed 20 students, six adult staffers, and himself at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Of those, 559 were children under the age of 11, nearly 2,500 were children between the ages of 12 and 17. There have been 277 mass shootings, defined as four or more people shot, injured, or killed. At concerts, at churches, on the street, in their homes, in their beds, in their living rooms, people’s children — everybody is somebody’s child — die. So Mark Barden wakes up with a howling sense of urgency.

It’s a two-hour drive up from Brooklyn, where I live with my wife and two children, to Newtown, Connecticut, where Mark still lives with his wife, Jackie, and his two surviving children. I was nervous as hell driving up. I’d never knowingly met a father whose son was murdered. Grief that strong feels dangerous and magnetic, which is one reason why parents — and children — of shooting victims often end up isolated. I wanted to meet Mark not out of a prurient curiosity but out of admiration for the determination with which he’d tried to turn a personal tragedy into political action. Still, I’m a father and I couldn’t help but wonder what happens after the worst thing happens.

Tragically, Mark knows.

Mark Barden, executive director of Sandy Hook Promise, holds a photograph of his late son Daniel, who was seven years old at the time of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Housed in a pretty white clapboard house near Newtown’s main shopping center, Sandy Hook Promise has a homey feel. After being buzzed in by the receptionist, I walk upstairs to find Mark, sitting at a long table, listening to jazz piped in over speakers.

Mark is a dead ringer for Michael Keaton or would be if Michael Keaton was a rock-and-roll musician. Mark has closely cropped gray hair and wears Chuck Taylors and flannel like someone who’s never owned a dress shirt. Before Sandy Hook, Mark worked as a session guitarist in Nashville and New York and played regular gigs in the city. After years on tour with country acts like Doug Stone, The Cox Family, and Michael Martin Murphey, he and his wife Jackie, an educator, settled in Newtown and into a routine. Mark squeezed work in after school drop-offs. On nights he was playing, he’d often get home at 2 a.m. after pulling over for a quick nap by the side of the highway, and wake up at 6 a.m. to get the kids off to school. By 2012, his three children were attending three different schools, which made this a multi-tiered logistical challenge.

“On that morning, during Christmas season, we were in this new schedule where the three of them had their three different buses with three different drop-offs,” Mark remembers. “But that was the first time ever, as I was walking James to the bus, that Daniel came. We had just got out the door of the house and I hear little footsteps behind us. It was Daniel, who had gotten up and had run out of the house and he was running up behind me in his pajamas and he put flip-flops on his little feet and I said, ‘Dude what are you doing up?’ He said, ‘I want to walk with you guys to the bus so I can hug James and kiss him and tell him I love him.’ So we walked James to the bus and Daniel festooned him with affection and love and we walked back to the house. I said, ‘You know it’s still dark. It’s way early you want to go back to sleep? You have time, you could go back to bed for awhile.’ He said, ‘No, daddy, this gives us more time for cuddling.’”

Mark’s voice, cracking with emotion and sadness, is important to hear because the awesome scale of slaughters like the one that took place in Newtown provide bystanders — and we’re all bystanders — with a way to resist the details, the small and profound ways a child’s death touches every single centimeter and millisecond of a parent’s life. Mark tells me that the feeling of loss is as raw as it was five years ago. When he tells me this, his voice grows tremulous and tight. “I’m still kind of in this limbo of, ‘Oh my God did this really happen?.” His words form a delicate skein over uncooled and volcanic emotions. “I’m still in this waking up thinking, ‘Please tell me that Daniel is still down in his room down the hall.’ I have to reacquaint myself with this horrible reality every morning.”

Mark says all this while sitting in the anodyne conference room he chose for this conversation and in front of a manila folder containing printed-out pictures of his son and his two living children, Natalie and James. He slides the pictures out from the folder, presenting them to me as memento mori and evidentiary exhibits. The pictures are themselves unremarkable, not unlike the thousands of snapshots I, and every other parent, has eating up space on their phone. In one, his kids grin out arms around each other. In another, Daniel smiles the smile of a child told to smile for a picture, gap-toothed and holding Ninja Cat, his favorite stuffed animal, in his arms.

There also wasn’t anything remarkable about Daniel’s last morning alive. Mark describes cuddling with his son in front of the Christmas tree and watching the sun come up on December 14, 2012. “I took this picture that morning, that beautiful sunrise it was peach colored, orange and pink,” Mark says. “I have that picture of the morning and I also took a picture of the Christmas tree. I will spend every minute of my life wishing I had taken a picture of Daniel.”

What else does Mark have of Daniel, besides the pictures in the folder in front of me, these memories? He has a bright yellow football helmet Daniel wore as a bike helmet. He says he sometimes inspects it for strands of Daniel’s strawberry blonde hair.

“I’m thinking his little living DNA is in those hairs,” he tells me, “that’s something tangible, I know it sounds just desperate right?”

It does and it’s exactly what I would do. To lose a child — no, not lose, that convenient softener — to have a child taken from you is to be sentenced to a life of desperation. It would be nice to think that Mark has turned that desperation and sadness into action, but he hasn’t. He is still desperate and sad and profoundly angry. He has simply refused to be paralyzed by those emotions. He doesn’t transmute; he moves forward, although forward is too cheery a gloss. He moves. That is enough.

Sandy Hook Promise was founded just weeks after the massacre. Initially, says Mark, the group’s strategy was focused on lobbying politicians in Hartford and then Washington to advocate closing loopholes in federal background checks and on specific regulations like limiting high capacity magazines like the ones the Sandy Hook shooter used. But, to Mark’s horror and to the horror of the 90 percent of Americans who support those changes, the bill didn’t pass. Mark thinks back on those days. “There is so much anger and so much rage I have but I have no place to go,” he says, “You just want to shake people.” The years of failure are bitter for Mark and illustrate just how wide the divide is between people who have had their lives upended and people who have not.

If the deaths of 20 school children and six educators didn’t sway congress, it seems unlikely that 11,293 bodies will either. It isn’t just a matter of scale, but of facing the fractal horror each one of those deaths caused — or refusing to do so. “If they could, just for a second,” says Mark, “feel what I feel, it would be a different conversation.” So he continues to exhibit his grief, slip pictures of Daniel out from his manila folder to anyone who will see, ride the ridge of tears and mainline his suffering. His personal strategy rests on the hope that even an echo of resonance in the hearts of those to whom he speaks might be enough to spur them to action.

But as an organization, Sandy Hook Promise has shifted gears. They have trained over 2 million youth and adults with their free Know The Signs programs. The programs include Start with Hello and Say Something which encourages students to engage with those who seem isolated, train them to recognize the warning signs of individuals who may be at-risk to hurt themselves or others and to tell a trusted adult to get them help before a tragedy occurs. The organization is heartbreakingly careful not to step on toes.Today, it speaks directly to students and educators, “That way,” says Mark, with the wariness of an outgunned soldier, “we’re not a target for the NRA since we focus on school safety. You can do the deepest dive you want on this organization, you will never see us advocating for anything that even compromises or at all infringes on anybody’s right to have their gun, ever. We are squeaky clean.” In fact, Mark refuses to even say the word gun control.

“We don’t use the C-word,” he tells me, “We say gun violence prevention.”

It takes a superhuman man, I think, to be a mourning father, a clear-eyed political activist, and also an advocate for loners like his son’s murderer. The strategy is intended to be practical and effective — if you can’t control the gun, help the person behind it — but it forces Mark to admit the shooter into his circle of compassion. To do this, Mark says, he thinks about Daniel.

“One of the things I lay awake at night still thinking about is that the guy that shot and killed my sweet little Daniel was horribly, chronically socially isolated,” Mark says, riding the break of his voice like a familiar riff. “I always think if somebody like my little Daniel who would do that, how he would go over and sit next to somebody who was compromised or feeling invisible and sit down with them and make them feel included, if somebody like Daniel had maybe one more conversation with that guy he could’ve made the whole difference.”

After Daniel died, Mark pretty much stopped playing music. Partly, he was just too busy with Sandy Hook Promise, but also, he explained, music is about being soft and vulnerable and he was just too hurt. Five years later, he says, “I’m sort of still in this process of getting back to it.” Even listening to songs, especially ones that Daniel loved like “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” by Steely Dan, and certain Alison Krauss songs, is painful. But he has recently been dipping a toe back into performing. He and his daughter Natalie played an open mic she organized the other week for a campaign called “Concerts Across America To End Gun Violence.” Mark played guitar and she sang a Tim McGraw tune, her voice a pretty thin thing over his finger picking.

A veil of normalcy has returned to the Bardens’ life. James drives Natalie to school every morning and every morning Mark kisses them goodbye. But as he stands outside, he wonders if this will be the last time he sees them. After all, once the inconceivable happens, it’s inconceivable no more.

The other day after James left for school, Mark was sweeping up the kitchen floor. As part of his physics class, James had tried to demonstrate that if you break a piece of pasta, it never breaks into just two pieces. A little chunk always breaks in the middle. James had been testing out his theory with a couple of his cousins in the kitchen — a few of Jackie’s sisters moved to Newtown after 2012 — and the result was a floor covered in spaghetti shards, tucked into hard-to-sweep places. When he found them, he’d think to himself, ‘If, God forbid, anything were ever to take James away from us, this stupid, little broken piece of pasta would take on a whole new meaning. I would store it and save it and it would become a precious memento of his life.”

And that’s how I’ll always imagine Mark, not sitting in the conference room, but standing in his kitchen, still living the trajectory of the Sandy Hook shooter’s bullet, at the tail end of complicated set of political facts, an army of lobbyists, a tangle of cash and influence, a mess of district lines and narrow interests and ideology. He’s a man with two living children and one dead son, holding a piece of spaghetti and contemplating how something breaks.

Newtown is a picturesque, especially in autumn, when the quiet streets are covered with bright red maple leaves. Driving home, I thought back to Daniel’s last morning; the branches must have been barren. I thought of Mark, who watches seasons change but forever find himself stuck in the dead of winter. I thought about trees and leaves and evergreens and there will certainly be more men, American men, like Mark. And so I drove a little bit faster so I’d make it home to see and kiss my own sons before darkness came.

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