Last year's massacre at Newtown sparked a national debate about guns, mental health and school safety. Parents of Sandy Hook victims traveled across the nation to meet with politicians, including some in Illinois. As part of our latest installment of Front and Center, IPR's Alex Keefe finds out what has changed here since the shootings - and what hasn't.
VOICE: Mark Barden'll testify first. ...
BARDEN: Thank you chairman Harmon and ladies and gentlemen of the committee (fade under)...
Mark Barden testified before Illinois State Senators in May. He spoke in support of a proposed ban on high-capacity magazines - like the kind used in the murder of his 7-year-old son, Daniel.
BARDEN: All of those lives were taken with less than four minutes by a single gunman armed with an assault weapon and 10, 30-round high-capacity magazines.
The ban on high-capacity magazines ultimately failed. In fact, it's been a year of defeats for gun control advocates in Illinois. A statewide ban on so-called assault weapons also failed, and most recently, a push for mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain gun crimes was defeated. But when I spoke to Barden earlier this week, he still sounded optimistic - and determined.
BARDEN: And when I hear my son James say, 'I hope no other family has to go through this,' I take that seriously, and I take that on as my responsibility to honor my surviving children and to honor my little Daniel.
But there has been one BIG change in Illinois since Newtown.
PEARSON: We passed concealed carry.
Rich Pearson heads up the Illinois State Rifle Association - which fought against tougher gun laws AFTER Sandy Hook. Just three days BEFORE the shooting, a federal judge ordered the legalization of concealed carry. Pearson argues that could PREVENT mass shootings - even though the new law says people are NOT allowed to carry in schools.
PEARSON: Taking the, uh, tack that it should not happen because I'm an innocent person or those were innocent children really doesn't matter in the world. You have to be aware, you have to be ready, and you have to have a plan. And if you don't, you wind up with things like Sandy Hook.
The concealed carry law also funds mental health background checks. And it requires physicians and psychologists to report people who pose a - quote - "clear and present danger." That's all about PREVENTION. But since Sandy Hook, some Illinois schools have also focused on PREPARATION.
VIDEO: We'll be talking about a subject that's difficult to think about: School shootings and other man-made...(fade under)
This training video was produced just a few months after Sandy Hook by the Woodland School District, in Lake County. It's shot by college film students, starring real teachers, real drama students - and real cops, roaming the halls with pointed guns. Woodland Administrator Lori Casey says the video has been distributed to more than 1,300 jurisdictions in the U-S and Canada - including the police department in Newtown, Connecticut.
CASEY: This is something that you never, ever thought in your lifetime you would have to do. Our teachers went to school to be teachers. And now things have changed where they wear so many hats and one of those hats is making sure their students are safe.
Schools across Illinois have held school shooting drills with police for years - though they were mandated only after Sandy Hook. But retired Gurnee police officer Tom Agos, who now advises the department, says the district went further than that. Before Newtown, the department posted two, part-time, plain-clothes cops in local schools. Now, the department has four, full-time, uniformed officers in marked squad cars.
AGOS: You know, it tells people very clearly, there's a policeman on the grounds here. And that's the - exactly the message that we wanna give.
A lot of the changes made in Illinois since Sandy Hook are steps in the right direction, says Shane Jimerson, a University of California professor who studies school shootings. But Jimerson says a sense of community is also crucial - both to make kids feel included, and to spot trouble early.
JIMERSON: Those students that are most at risk for delinquency and acts of violence are often those that are the most alienated from the school, from the community.
To that end, some Sandy Hook parents like Mark Barden are now launching a new initiative - called "Parent Together." Barden says, the basic idea is to create dialogue - and that sense of community.
BARDEN: We'd like to see people, uh, of all different political backgrounds, all different - uh, just gun culture, non gun culture, just have the conversation on, Well, what can we agree on to address this issue to protect our children.
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