In Illinois, what has and hasn't changed since Newtown

December 13, 2013

AP/File
In this Dec. 4, 2013 file photo, a school bus drives past a lamppost decorated for the holidays, and a sign reading Welcome to Sandy Hook, in Newtown, Conn.

The massacre in Newtown, Conn., last December sparked national debates about guns, mental health, and school safety.

In the year since 20-year-old Adam Lanza murdered 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School before killing himself, Illinois has seen its share of legal and policy changes.

The parents of some Sandy Hook victims traveled across the nation to meet with politicians, including some in Illinois this past May.

Mark Barden spoke in support of a proposed ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, such as those Lanza used in the murder of Barden’s 7-year-old son Daniel.

“All of those lives were taken with less than four minutes by a single gunman armed with an assault weapon and 10 30-round high-capacity magazines,” Barden told lawmakers then.

A ban on high-capacity magazines ultimately did not happen.

In fact, it has been a year of defeats for gun control advocates in Illinois. A proposed statewide ban on so-called assault weapons also failed, and most recently, a push for mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain gun crimes has stalled.

Barden, in an interview this week, still sounded optimistic -- and determined.

“And when I hear my son James say, ‘I hope no other family has to go through this,’ I take that seriously, and I take that on as my responsibility to honor my surviving children and to honor my little Daniel,” Barden said.

But the one big change in Illinois gun laws since Newtown was this: Lawmakers passed a law allowing people to carry concealed weapons.

Rich Pearson heads up the Illinois State Rifle Association, which fought against tougher gun laws after Sandy Hook. Just three days before the shooting, a federal judge ordered the legalization of concealed-carry in the state.

Pearson argued that this measure could prevent mass shootings as occurred at Sandy Hook, even though the new Illinois law says people are not allowed to carry guns in schools.

“Taking the tack that it should not happen because I’m an innocent person or those were innocent children really doesn’t matter in the world,” Pearson said. “You have to be aware, you have to be ready, and you have to have a plan. And if you don’t, you wind up with things like Sandy Hook.”

The concealed carry law also funds mental health background checks with $20 out of each concealed carry permit fee. And it requires physicians and psychologists to report people who pose a “clear and present danger” to the state.

That’s all about prevention. But since Sandy Hook, some Illinois schools have also focused on preparation.

Just a couple of months after the shootings in Connecticut, the Woodland School District in Lake County north of Chicago shot a professional-quality training video for its staff. Film students at Chicago’s Columbia College produced it, and it starred real students from the district, real teachers, and real cops from the Gurnee Police Department.

Woodland administrator Lori Casey said the video has been distributed to more than 1,300 jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada, including to the police department in Newtown, Conn.

“This is something that you never, ever thought in your lifetime you would have to do,” Casey said. “Our teachers went to school to be teachers. And now things have changed where they wear so many hats and one of those hats is making sure their students are safe.”

Schools across Illinois have held school shooting drills with police for years, though they were mandated by state law only after Sandy Hook.

Retired Gurnee police officer Tom Agos, who now advises the department, said the district went further than that.

Before Newtown, the department posted two part-time plain-clothes officers in local schools. Now, the department has four full-time uniformed officers in marked squad cars.

“You know, it tells people very clearly, there’s a policeman on the grounds here. And that’s exactly the message that we wanna give,” Agos said.

A lot of the changes made in Illinois since Sandy Hook are steps in the right direction, says Shane Jimerson, a University of California at Santa Barbara professor who studies school shootings.

But Jimerson says a sense of community is also crucial -- both to make kids feel included, and to spot trouble early.

“Those students that are most at risk for delinquency and acts of violence are often those that are the most alienated from the school, from the community,” Jimerson said.

To that end, some Sandy Hook parents such as Mark Barden are now launching a new initiative, called Parent Together.

Barden said the basic idea is to create dialogue and that sense of community.

“We’d like to see people of all different political backgrounds … just gun culture, non-gun culture, just have the conversation on, ‘Well, what can we agree on to address this issue to protect our children?’”

Barden says he’ll spend the first anniversary of Daniel’s murder with his family,  privately, in “quiet reflection.”