When Mark Barden received the first “thinking of you” text on Tuesday afternoon, he assumed the well-wisher had the anniversary of some other horrific school shooting on their mind. Late May is ripe with them: This week marks the four-year anniversary of a shooting spree at a high school Santa Fe, Texas, that left 10 dead, and eight years since a University of California, Santa Barbara student murdered two fellow students outside a sorority house in Isla Vista, California. “They do just seem to stack up,” Barden sighed.
Barden would soon find out, of course, about a new tragedy unfolding at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. The massacre, which left 19 students and two teachers dead, would be immediately dubbed “another Sandy Hook” — the very thing Barden had devoted his life to preventing ever since the 2012 shooting claimed his seven-year-old son Daniel and 19 other first graders. On Tuesday night, Barden and his wife, Jackie, got in their car and drove around. “We just had to get out,” Barden says, and the two sat silently for a long while. “Then Jackie turned to me and said, ‘This is their Friday night.’ And I knew exactly what she meant.”
She was referring to Friday, December 14, 2014, the night the Bardens waited in agony at the Newtown firehouse until Gov. Dannel Malloy said, finally, “No more survivors.” The night they had to find the impossible words to tell to their two surviving children that their brother had been murdered at the elementary school they’d all attended. The night Barden could no longer imagine, as he’d done in the hours before, that his auburn-curled little boy had miraculously escaped the horror in his classroom and dashed into the woods, safe and sound.
“We were just in total shock, just trying to wrap our heads around what the fuck had happened,” Barden told me on Wednesday morning. “And that’s what Jackie meant. That’s where these families are right now.”
Barden has been willing to share his personal horror, again and again and again, for a nation reeling from one unthinkable tragedy after another — even though, for Barden, the tragedy is very much thinkable, for he has lived it for nearly a decade. And he feels compelled to do it in the small hope that, maybe, finally, fewer families would have to suffer his agony. “I recognized early on that there was a component of advocacy that I could honor my son Daniel through using my voice, using that platform that I didn’t want to be on, to prevent other families from having to go through this,” Barden says. “And I found it was an appropriate way, and I still do, to honor my little Daniel.”
I’ve been among the journalists who have called Barden in the aftermath of atrocities. Every time, he takes my call, and every time, he answers my nosy questions about what it’s like to live through a cruelty no parent should ever have to endure. He always welcomes my inquiries with a grace, generosity, and honesty that somehow makes his willingness seem all the more heartbreaking. He spares no one his grief, nor should he: The week that followed the 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, Barden had been “horrible” for him, though he nonetheless documented his “absolute sorrow, despair, anger, and defeat” to a Hartford Courant reporter who asked.
When I picked up the phone to, yet again, ask Barden to comment on another unspeakable tragedy, I couldn’t help but ask: Do you ever consider…not answering the phone?
Barden paused. “It is very difficult,” he says. “I feel I have a responsibility to talk to you about this because you are the conduit to the American public,” Barden says when I ask about his resolve. “That’s where the activism is. And I’m asking folks to take this moment, take this outrage, and this horror, this sadness that they’re feeling, and don’t let it go.”
David Hogg thinks “probably thousands, or at least several hundred” people have asked him where he was when he learned the news of the Uvalde shooting. “That’s a rough estimate,” Hogg, a survivor of the 2018 Parkland shooting, says. “But it sure feels like it.” To be someone who is now sought for comment feels “dystopian,” he admits. “I’ve seen a lot of us survivors break down in the last couple of days. It’s traumatizing, it’s exhausting.”
Fred Guttenberg, who lost his daughter Jaime in the Parkland massacre, has been a frequent cable news guest ever since he became a full-time gun control activist following his daughter’s death. Even so, fielding the media requests feels “horrible” in moments like this, he says over text. “I still suffer the loss of my daughter and the guilt from having been silent before it was her. This will always feel like a nightmare.”
Those who have survived this nightmare know they have little to offer their macabre club’s newest members. “There’s nothing you can say or do that can help somebody through that process, and it’s just gut wrenching,” Barden says. “The idea that there’s any outreach that can mitigate the sense of loss for these parents is kind of ridiculous,” adds Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who became close with the Sandy Hook families as their then-congressman.
In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, Newtown residents begged the swarming press to leave the tight-knit hamlet alone, pleading with journalists to stop calling victims and banging on neighbors’ doors, cameras already perched over shoulders. Parkland, too, became a media spectacle after the tragedy, and a sense of doom spread across survivors as that tragedy’s parallels to Uvalde were revealed. “If I show up to school tomorrow & there are news trucks outside [Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School] so we can be the backdrop for their liveshot, I’m going to lose my mind,” a teacher who survived the shooting tweeted Tuesday night.
No one wants to be a prop in a pageant of grief, especially since the agony spares no one as it ripples across a community. “I know from our own experience that our friends and neighbors, people in our neighborhood where Daniel was a presence of light and joy and happiness — those folks were forever changed by this,” Barden says, and are equally in need of support. But to share, for Barden, has been a source of strength. “I understood that, whether we wanted it or not — well, we didn’t want it — that we had a voice now, that folks wanted to hear and hopefully learn from our experience,” Barden says. “And for me, personally, I found there was some healing value in that.”
Before the Uvalde massacre, Hogg had spent three days in Buffalo, New York, where 10 Black residents were shot and killed at a grocery store last week. The devastation had transfixed a horrified nation, only to be eclipsed days later by another senseless mass slaughter. Hogg knows mass shootings are what drive the media’s attention, brief windows that give him a platform to address the pervasiveness of gun violence everywhere.
“I understand there’s a privilege, in terms of you talking to me” he says. “There are millions of people who don’t get these calls.”