The morning after 20 children and six adults were gunned down at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., Fairfax County mother Klara Bilgin drove to the nearby headquarters of the National Rifle Association. There, she stood in the cold with her husband and two sons, ages 4 and 5.
“We didn’t know what to do with ourselves,” she said. “So we came here.”
The next day, they returned and found others had joined them. And over the past year, it has become a monthly tradition to protest gun violence in front of the mirrored blue windows of the NRA.
On Saturday, the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, a small crowd stood in the cold holding signs and small T-shirts with the names and ages of victims.
Across the country, the date was observed with simple memorials and private prayers. Many preferred not to link the deaths to political issues.
NRA spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment Saturday. But Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, objected to the protest when asked about it. “I think it’s unfortunate they’re doing that,” he said.
“Let the people mourn, a year later, the loss of their children, without making a big political thing of it,” he said. “Newtown was about mental health, not about guns. . . . It wasn’t what weapon [shooter Adam Lanza] chose. A gun is a piece of metal. It’s the fact that he would even consider murdering his mother, murdering little children and a bunch of adults.”
Saturday morning at the White House, President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama lit 26 candles and bowed their heads. “We haven’t yet done enough to make our communities and our country safer,” Obama said in his weekly address. “We have to do more to keep dangerous people from getting their hands on a gun so easily. We have to do more to heal troubled minds.”
In a Southeast Washington park Saturday afternoon, people huddled under bright umbrellas in the cold rain and rang tiny bells. Knowing there were so many marking the anniversary with moments of silence, Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said, “We are having a moment of ‘No more silence.’ ”
In front of the NRA offices, Lauren Ambrosini said she came because she could not quite believe she lives in a society in which, periodically, she has to ask her preschool and kindergarten students to lie silently on the floor — a drill to prepare for the unthinkable.
Administrators help by rattling the doorknobs, as though they are madmen intent on getting in, Ambrosini said. The exercise terrifies the children, she said.
“I have little girls asking, ‘Are bad people going to come in here with guns?’ ”
Patricia Maisch, 64, an owner of a small business, came because she feels it is long past time to act. After the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado 14 years ago, she thought, “How awful — someone should do something.” After the shooting at Virginia Tech six years ago, she thought, “How awful — surely someone will do something.” Then, nearly three years ago, she saw a gunman open fire in her home town of Tucson at an event hosted by then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D).
The woman next to her fell dead with three gunshot wounds — one of six people to die — and Maisch said she would have been next if men had not knocked the shooter, Jared Loughner, to the ground next to her. She saw Loughner reaching for the magazine to reload and she took it away from him.
For the next two years, she said, she thought the saddest thing imaginable was the memory of parents holding the body of their 9-year-old daughter that day.
Then Sandy Hook happened, and she realized that not all parents get to hold their children one last time, because some weapons rip such gaping wounds into the bodies.
In the past year, Bilgin said, she has found herself taking her sons to the malls and movie theaters less often. Public places no longer feel as safe as they once did. When her sons go to birthday parties and play dates, she wonders whether the families’ guns are safely locked away.
And she learned how strongly many Americans feel about their right to bear arms.
Van Cleave said later by phone that people would never dream of protesting outside Ford Motor’s headquarters because a drunk driver hit and killed a family of five. But if a gun results in a death, they blame the gun. He said the types of restrictive laws advocates have demanded would ensure that only criminals were armed.
At the protest, some drivers passing by honked in support. A man pulling out of the NRA parking lot rolled down a window as a speaker was introducing a singer and yelled, “Get a life, losers!”
The activists, muffled against the cold in fat parkas and hand-knit scarves, sang “Amazing Grace.”
Then they packed their signs into plastic bags and, knowing the monthly tradition would continue, said, “See you all January 14.”