Nicole Hockley learned about Tuesday’s massacre during a meeting at the organization she co-founded nearly a decade ago after her 6-year-old son was shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. Manuel Oliver learned about it while he was in his home office, planning what he would do next to bring more attention to his 17-year-old son, who was shot dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Alex Wind learned about it on a bus trip to New York, where he was headed to attend a wedding and take a break from the daily fight for gun reform he’s sought since he hid in a Parkland, Fla., classroom closet, listening to the gunshots that ended 17 lives.
The tears and nausea and breath-stripping pain would come for all of them in the hours ahead, but for Hockley, the numbness arrived first.
“How are you doing?” asked her Sandy Hook Promise co-founder, Mark Barden, whose 7-year-old son was also killed in the Connecticut shooting.
“I just feel empty,” Hockley told him.
She had endured what so many families in Uvalde, Tex., were about to face. By day’s end, at least 19 children and two adults would be reported dead at Robb Elementary — a school of just under 500 students, about the same size as Sandy Hook Elementary. The news both consumed and overwhelmed the legions of parents, siblings and survivors who have devoted their lives to stopping a day like Tuesday from ever happening again. Some of them turned off their TVs and put their phones away, unable to bear even incremental updates, much less interviews with reporters. Others had no choice but to talk because they had to do something.
At first, Hockley offered to fly to Texas, to get to work on the ground. But her staff remembered what had happened after Parkland, when she’d thrown herself into the response. Her body broke down and she became almost too ill to function.
The reality of that risk — of this shooting undoing her — felt only more acute as the day continued. The death count grew. The memories resurfaced.
She saw something on the news about the families in Uvalde not knowing whose children had lived and whose had died. It took her back inside the brick firehouse up the road from Sandy Hook. It was there that she had held on to hope. That she imagined her Dylan, the blue-eyed little boy who liked to flap his arms because he imagined himself a “butterfly,” running, hiding, surviving.
“Not my son,” she’d told herself.
By Tuesday evening, she was thinking of how the families in Texas would have to help identify their slain children, just as she had. An officer had asked what Dylan was wearing, and she’d told him Velcro sneakers, jeans, red shirt, SpongeBob SquarePants underwear. Later, the police would give the clothes back, pocked with bullet holes.
It was impossible not to relive all of it.
“This didn’t hit close to home,” she said. “This is home.”
The shock enveloped Oliver, too, as did sadness and indignation. But there was no surprise.
From what he’d heard, the 18-year-old Texas shooter didn’t sound much different from the 19-year-old who killed his son, Joaquin. The shooters were about the same age and, apparently, each had easy access to guns. The aftermath felt familiar, too: the panic in the parents’ eyes and the hollowness in the students’; the conservative politicians arguing that only more guns would keep children safe in schools and the liberal ones insisting that more guns had never kept children safe in schools.
Little had changed after he lived through all that four years ago, and he was skeptical that much would change after watching it this time.
If there was any consolation, it was the fresh questions about his son. He got to talk about them being best friends, going together to Miami Heat games, sharing thick steaks, introducing each other to their favorite music — Frank Ocean and Tupac from Joaquin, the Ramones and the Clash from Oliver.
But the good memories were fleeting, because father and son would never make new ones. Joaquin was gone. That was the life sentence Uvalde’s parents would now begin to serve.
“I’m not happy with life anymore,” Oliver said. “I just live.”
Wind, the 21-year-old Parkland survivor, hasn’t given up being happy, but he also understands how gun violence could haunt anyone — including him — forever, especially in a country where the threat of another mass shooting never subsides.
It struck him as he sat on the bus, checking for updates on his phone, that the kids at Robb were part of an entirely different generation from the teens at Parkland. But here they were, linked by the most American crisis of all.
“There are no words,” he said, pausing, “except the same words as the time before that and the time before that and the time before that.”
Like the others, and like President Biden, Wind believed that progress wouldn’t happen until conservative lawmakers defied the gun lobbyists who for decades have opposed even widely popular reforms.
It was a frustration that no one expressed more clearly on Tuesday than Fred Guttenberg, another Parkland parent, whose daughter, Jaime, was killed four years ago. In an interview on MSNBC, he couldn’t contain his fury toward the politicians who refused to support change.
“I’d like to tell them all to go f-off because of what they did, what they do. The way they politicize guns and violence led us to this day,” he said, before turning to the victims.
“Parents, loved ones, who their world is spinning. Who right now have to think, ‘How am I going to plan a funeral?’ Who right now have to think, ‘What kind of casket?’ Who right now have to think, ‘All I did was send them to school. And I have to plan their funeral. And I have to write a eulogy. I have to comfort those who I love. My other children, my spouse, my friends, my neighbors. I have to figure out how to go forward.’
“Because people failed,” he continued. “They … f---ing failed our kids again, okay? I’m done. I’ve had it. You know, how many more times?”
How many more times is a question that has been repeated by millions of people after hundreds of shootings, and Guttenberg and Hockley and Oliver and Wind all knew that Tuesday did not mark the last day it would be asked.
The shootings will continue, and with them, more tears, more nausea, more pain. And though they understand that change might never come, all of them say they’ll keep fighting for it, because of another question they’ve repeated over and over:
What other choice do they have?