There is one raw, honest, unfiltered reason why gun violence prevention advocates, philanthropic organizations, and elected officials alike work with Newtown Action Alliance & Newtown Action Alliance Foundation Co-founder and Chairwoman Po Murray.
“She gets shit done.”
So says Kristin Song, president of the Ethan Miller Song Foundation, without hesitation about Murray. Song’s foundation is named for her late
son Ethan, 15, who was shot and killed by an unsecured gun at a friend’s home in 2018. It is one of many organizations that partner with Newtown Action Alliance and its charitable foundation — created in 2012 in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting that claimed the lives of 20 first-graders and six educators — to reduce gun violence through policy and cultural change.
Song says Murray’s work ethic and ethos are also why so many, including the Joyce Foundation, also support the Annual National Vigil for All Victims of Gun Violence, held every year on or near the anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Last year on the 10th anniversary, President Joe Biden was the keynote speaker.
“We’re not in it for money or fame,” Murray said. “The vigil is a bittersweet reminder of the toll of gun violence and gets a lot of attention, but the work is ongoing year-round.”
This year, hundreds of survivors, many carrying pictures of fallen loved ones, packed St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. for the 11th annual vigil on December 6. Several members of Congress, many of whom have worked on gun control legislation, also attended, including U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy; and Representatives Jahana Hayes, Maxwell Frost, Jan Schakowsky, and Lucy McBath, whose son Jordan Davis was shot and killed in a racially motivated shooting in 2012. The evening’s keynote speaker was the husband of Vice-President Kamala Harris, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff.
“Thoughts and prayers are not enough. We need action,” Emhoff said, echoing the sentiments of those in attendance. “Gun violence is the number one cause of death for children in the United States of America in 2023. That is outrageous and we need to do more…”
Murray told attendees the gun violence prevention community has grown larger than ever as a result of persistence and advocacy, and that despite pockets of opposition, progress continues on gun control measures in many states.
“We must celebrate these wins but we can’t rest until there is dramatic decline in gun deaths and injuries,” Murray told the crowd at the vigil. “We must be aspirational, we must fight boldly, unapologetically, with a sense of urgency for transformational changes.”
Like many who become involved in gun violence prevention work, Murray’s involvement is deeply personal: she was a neighbor of the person who killed his own mother before killing 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary. Many of her other neighbors lost children that day and her own four children are graduates of the school.
Murray says Newtown Action Alliance was never meant to last this long, but against the backdrop of escalating gun violence nationwide and a powerful gun lobby that has stymied federal firearms policy proposals, the organization has become a major influencer in the gun violence prevention space. In 11 years it has compiled a formidable string of policy wins and advocacy advances, including connecting survivors impacted by all forms of gun violence from across the nation and empowering survivors to lead advocacy efforts to create change. She also pointed to the recent establishment of the White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, whose deputy directors Greg Jackson and Rob Wilcox stirred the vigil crowd by outlining the work that has been accomplished so far in just 12 weeks.
While Newtown Action Alliance’s inception and the vigil are rooted in the Sandy Hook tragedy, Murray recognized that the scourge of gun violence touches millions of Americans and was intentional about broadening the vigil’s focus to include the commemoration of all gun violence victims.
Arguably the most painful, moving, and meaningful portion of the vigil is when all survivors are asked to come forward to share pictures and stories and speak the names of their loved ones. One by one they stepped forward, representing a range of incidents from high-profile mass shootings: parents and siblings of children killed in Uvalde, Texas; young adult survivors of the Sandy Hook elementary shooting sharing pictures of themselves as 6-year-olds; family members of shootings in Parkland, FL. and Buffalo, New York. Also stepping forward were loved ones whose relatives were taken by stray bullets in Chicago; home invasions in Baltimore; robberies in Washington, D.C.; domestic violence incidents, and suicides throughout the nation. Although their pain was palpable and urgent, many expressed thanks and said they felt a sense of relief that the vigil provided them a safe, nonjudgmental space to grieve — and heal.
“I’m Congresswoman Lucy McBath. I lost my son Jordan in the national ‘loud music’ killing,” she said through tears, while holding up a picture of her son. “I’m here to make sure that no other family suffers the way some of the survivors have suffered in this cathedral. Enough is enough.”
Because of the magnitude and effectiveness of their work and public events, many aren’t aware that Newtown Action Alliance is an all-volunteer and operates without full-time staff and on a modest $100,000 annual budget (mostly used for the national vigil), which co-founder and Vice-Chair David Stowe noted has left them stretched threadbare.
Gun violence research has been underfunded by the federal government for decades. Philanthropy partners, including Joyce, stepped in to fund research, policy development, and advocacy, and in 2020, the federal budget included $25 million earmarked for research funding to be split between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. Some states have been successful in funding and implementing measures such as Extreme Risk laws and Community Violence Intervention initiatives. But more support is needed, particularly for first-line advocacy organizations, Stowe said.
“We get a tremendous amount of work done without a lot of resources but we could use more help, more partnerships with philanthropy and other organizations,” Stowe said. “The vigil is not a highlighted event like the 9/11 Memorial but its impact is widely and deeply felt.”
Murray said the vigil “centers the survivors’ voice,” highlighting their stories and providing a safe space to mourn together while remembering the victims. It is a solemn observance, she said, but also inspiring — providing the strength and support for the difficult work that happens the rest of the year.
Gun Violence Prevention and Justice Reform Program Officer Quintin Williams said he was deeply moved attending the 2022 vigil: “I walked away having a sobering picture of how gun violence has impacted people from all walks of life in America, how they have all united in their pain to bring an end to it, and how important our work is in funding gun violence prevention strategies and research and supporting policy advocates who are bringing the work to life.”
In the end, Murray said, speaking out — sometimes in the face of stalwart opposition — is worth it to support victims and their families.
“Most of the other gun violence prevention organizations are centrist. We are not. We are bold, unapologetic, aspirational, not at all performative. We believe in coalition-building and not competition,” Murray said. “What we do is true advocacy in a ‘no BS’ zone. It takes awhile to build a dramatic sea change and we want to empower survivors to get out there and fight for change. Our work isn’t done but we know we’ll get there.”
Newtown Action Alliance is a grantee partner of The Joyce Foundation’s Gun Violence Prevention and Justice Reform program. Click the link to learn more about their work, where to find them on social media, and this year’s vigil.
About The Joyce Foundation
Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.