The Sandy Hook survivors are graduating—and they’re advocating for gun control

Sandy Hook students all grown up
ABC News/YouTube

It’s hard to believe this, but kids who survived the Sandy Hook shooting 12 years ago are getting ready to graduate.

60 of the 330 kids who will graduate from Newtown High School this year will walk across the stage carrying the burden of having survived one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history — and knowing many of their former classmates should be there with them. When they were first graders, 20 of their classmates and six of their teachers were killed in the shooting on Dec. 14, 2012.

“I think we’re all super excited for the day,” Lilly Wasilnak, a 17-year-old senior who was down the hall from the classrooms where her peers were killed that day, told NPR. “But I think we can’t forget … that there is a whole chunk of our class missing. And so going into graduation, we all have very mixed emotions — trying to be excited for ourselves and this accomplishment that we’ve worked so hard for, but also those who aren’t able to share it with us, who should have been able to.”

Emma Ehrens, one of 11 children from Classroom 10 who was able to survive by running away while the gunman was reloading, added, “I am definitely going be feeling a lot of mixed emotions. I’m super excited to be, like, done with high school and moving on to the next chapter of my life. But I’m also so … mournful, I guess, to have to be walking across that stage alone. … I like to think that they’ll be there with us and walking across that stage with us.”

NPR spoke to many seniors from Newtown who have become anti-gun violence activists in their teen years. Now, on the cusp of their graduation, they talk about wanting to become therapists, lawyers, and lawmakers so they can help prevent the same violence that happened to them from happening to more children in the future.

It really puts it into perspective how much they’ve endured with so little actionable change as a result—now that the children affected by that awful day are becoming adults and vowing to do something about gun control themselves. Grace Fischer, another Sandy Hook survivor, told ABC News she believed the biggest change needed was “regulations on AR-style assault weapons”.

The most recent and all-encompassing set of gun safety laws passed by Congress was in 2022, with Sandy Hook campaigners at the forefront of years of pressure for more change. While the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act accomplished many things, such as strengthening background checks and closing the loophole that allowed partners with a history of domestic violence to obtain firearms, many argue the new law did not go far enough. Joe Biden and his administration have repeatedly urged Congress to require background checks for all gun transactions and/or ban assault-style weapons, which the legislation did not do.

Ehrens and Fischer were among six Sandy Hook survivors invited to the White House on 7 June, National Gun Violence Awareness Day, to meet with the vice-president, Kamala Harris, who recently became the head of the newly created federal Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

“Putting my voice out there and working with all of these amazing people to try and create change really puts a meaning to the trauma that we all were forced to experience,” said 18-year-old Ella Seaver, who plans to study psychology in college. “It’s a way to feel like you’re doing something. Because we are. We’re fighting for change and we’re really not going to stop until we get it.”

Wasilnak added, “For me, I knew I wanted to do something more since I was younger when the tragedy first happened. I wanted to turn such a terrible thing into something more, and that these children and educators didn’t die for nothing. Of course it was awful what happened to them, and it should have never happened. But I think that for me, something bigger needed to come out of it, or else it would have been all for nothing.”