The Father of a Sandy Hook Victim Speaks Out About the Uvalde Tragedy

Mark Barden hugging a woman at a gun violence protest

Ten years ago, the world watched in horror as a shooter took the lives of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, including children as young as 6 years old. One of those children, Daniel, was the son of Mark Barden. The pain he and his family faced is unspeakable — and it was resurrected when news hit of the May 2022 school shooting Uvalde, TX, nearly 10 years later.

Since then, Mark Barden co-founded Sandy Hook Promise, the nonprofit where he is now CEO, and which is devoted to protecting America’s children from gun violence. Katie interviewed Mark in 2012, while he was living through every parent’s nightmare. She contacted him again this week to talk about how he’s persevering 10 years later, how the gun control issue has evolved since then, and what Sandy Hook Promise is doing to prevent any parent from going through what he experienced.

Katie Couric: When this shooting happened in Uvalde, you were the first person I thought about. Honestly, I thought about all the Sandy Hook families, because I could only imagine how this makes you relive the horror and the heartbreak of that day. Can you tell us how you were able to process this latest news out of Texas?

When we heard the news coming out of Uvalde, my wife Jackie and I were still in the process of wrapping our heads around the fact that innocent people had been gunned down and shot to death in Buffalo while they were shopping for their groceries, because they were Black. And we were still just trying to comprehend that atrocity when we heard the news from Uvalde. It took me right to that moment when I started getting text messages and emails and phone calls on December 14th, 2012, saying, “Did you hear the news? There’s a lockdown and maybe a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.” And last Tuesday, when we heard there was a shooting in an elementary school, it was the same thing.

That Tuesday night, as the news was becoming more detailed and the similarities to Sandy Hook were uncanny, Jackie and I just had to get out and went for a drive. We were out driving quietly, just driving and thinking. And Jackie turned to me and said, “This is their Friday night.” And I knew exactly what she meant. It took us right back to our own experience that night when James and Natalie had been taken to neighbors for the day and had to be brought home. And we had to walk them upstairs to our bedroom and sit them down on the bed and tell them what happened. And I will tell you that no one should ever have to do that. And our hearts were breaking thinking of those families that night.

I’ll never forget talking to you and your family just two days after you lost seven-year-old Daniel, sitting in your living room near your Christmas tree. You were all still in a state of shock. How are you all doing now, almost 10 years later?

I ask myself those questions and we ask each other those questions literally every day. It is a continuing journey. And for folks who think this was something terrible that happened to us 10 years ago… it is always with us. It will always be with us. We talk about our little Daniel just about every day and we miss him every minute of every day. We wanna find a healthy place to be with it. But my kids James and Natalie are both thriving in college. And Jackie and I are continually supporting each other and being open, honest, and loving with each other.

The Barden family today

Sandy Hook Promise really has focused on recognizing the warning signs of school shootings. And you have been effective in a number of cases, haven’t you?

When this first happened, I recognized that I had to be involved in this. I owed it to Daniel — I still owe it to Daniel. And I owe it to other families from having to endure this life of pain, especially when we know it’s preventable. In the early days, all we knew to do was to try to help our government do anything that they could. And at that time, it was the background check bill. It was just about closing the loophole in existing law. And I thought that would be an easy one, um, especially because we had the support of 90% of the American people. Unconscionably, that did not pass.

The fact that that legislation did not pass despite the will of the American people, caused us to rethink this model and ask “What else can we do?” We did a lot of research, and one of the things that kept emerging was that every one of these mass shootings, almost all of the suicides that we were seeing, there were warning signs in advance. Imagine a world where instead of saying, “Oh yeah, we probably should have seen this coming because there was a long history of warning signs” we saw those warning signs as an opportunity to intervene and connect that individual. To help before it becomes a tragedy. That’s where we focus.

A lot of our work is training students how to recognize and identify those warning signs, and then giving them the training and the tools to take the next step: to tell trusted adults, or to use our anonymous reporting system and talk to a crisis counselor and get that individual connected to whatever services they might need. We know that we have prevented at least nine school shootings that were planned, that were imminent. There were arrests made in the aftermath of a tragedy that did not happen. We’ve succeeded in fulfilling that mission and preventing all of those families from enduring this pain. I just can’t wait to continue to build this to scale.

Is this kind of training available in schools across the country?

Yes, we have our trainers and programming available in all 50 states, as well as the anonymous supporting system. We place an emphasis on sustainability. Because my wife, Jackie, as a school teacher, told us early on that it’s great that you bring in a presentation, but you have to do more than that. It has to have sustainability. You can’t just leave it in the school’s hands to continue this work. And so it just becomes part of the culture of the school. So I see scale and impact as more than just numbers, but over time where we’re gonna have an actual positive impact on our culture.

I’m curious about the strides, or lack thereof, that’ve been made in terms of reducing gun violence. There have been some small victories. Can we talk about those?

You know, there have been small victories but we have to embrace them, because victories are victories. The organizations that have come to life in the aftermath of Sandy Hook really changed the narrative on this and moved the needle with their resources and their engagement. So we’re in a place now where the gun-violence prevention movement is a real thing — it’s got a lot of weight behind it and a lot of dedicated people driving this narrative forward.

President Obama signed a mental health bill into law that we helped support and write. We passed a grant funding bill in the last administration that helps us offset our costs of bringing our Know the Signs training into schools. President Biden just signed our Standup Act into law, which will provide suicide awareness training and prevention to middle and high school students across the country.

You mentioned President Biden’s efforts to fund more mental health programs. As you know, there’s a big debate going on in the public right now saying mental health really isn’t the issue, because other countries have mental health problems and yet they don’t have the level of gun violence the U.S. has. What’s your take on that discussion?

Evidence-based research tells us that people suffering from either mental illness or a mental health crisis are far more likely to be the victim of gun violence than the perpetrator. So let’s name that upfront. We are all humans, right? We’re all on a spectrum of our mental health and wellness. The common denominator is not mental health or wellness for the United States. There are other countries that have a lot of guns, but they have very stringent regulations on how they are required to be stored, and how they are used. And that is clearly the difference. The data doesn’t lie. You just can’t get around that.

I wanted to ask you about the lawsuit that was filed against Remington, the makers of the AR-15-style weapon used in the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Was that a big victory in some ways for the families?

I can only speak to that from my own individual family. My wife Jackie was just curious as to how this 20-year-old, a mile and a half away from us, got his hands on a military-grade assault rifle, which he used to murder our little boy. And she came across this just grossly negligent advertising policy. And she was appalled at what she saw and just thought, How can this exist? We thought we would raise that up and see if there’s a way to hold them accountable for that. And that’s what we did. 

Do you think there should be an assault weapons ban and a buyback program? And what other measures? I know that this is not what Sandy Hook Promises is necessarily focused on, but you’re very knowledgeable when it comes to reducing gun violence. What else needs to be done?

With regard to your assault weapons question, a lot of folks try to rebrand the AR-15 as a modern sporting rifle. And, to my own horror, we did some research on that. I’ve spoken to members of the military and law enforcement, and I know very closely trained sharpshooters for the Marines and snipers. They said they prefer the semiautomatic platform over a fully automatic, because they could be more deliberate and more accurate, and kill lots of people very quickly.

That’s the kind of firepower that is reflected in this civilian version, which is just about the same. But one of the things that I learned is that because of the velocity of the force, the bullet travels at about 4,000 feet per second. There’s a physical phenomenon where the speed of that object through the air compresses the air molecules and creates a shock wave. And that shock wave, when it encounters soft tissue and even bone, is tremendously more destructive than the actual projectile. That’s what happened to my sweet little boy.

I just can’t find a practical application in civilized society for that kind of weapon. 

But to your question about what else can we do? There is so much we can do. I heard Vice President Harris the other day say, “This is not like we’re searching for a vaccine. We already have the antidote.” We already have solutions available to us. So closing the loophole in the federal background check system — making that universal — we have evidence and research that informs us that it’ll save lives.

Extremist protection orders — also known as “red flag laws” — are proven to be effective, and save lives. And they don’t infringe on anybody’s second amendment rights. And if you already identify as a responsible gun owner, you should already be storing your gun properly. It shouldn’t make an impact on you. So those are some of the gun-safety policy initiatives that are available to us that are constitutional, that don’t infringe on anybody’s right to purchase a firearm. And then there are community-based violence-intervention programs that are proven to be effective as well. There are a lot of solutions available to us, that I wish we could, we could get up and running at the federal level. Now.

What about some kind of waiting period? Is there anything for those people who are in a gray area, without infringing upon their rights?

Yeah, absolutely. I think the waiting period is a great idea. We also have to acknowledge the difference between a diagnosable mental illness and a mental health crisis. The former, when combined with access to firearms, can have deadly results. It’s early on, but after the latest mass shooting in Tulsa, I think we’ve now learned that the shooter purchased an AR-15 moments before carrying out that shooting. So I think we have ample evidence to support a waiting period.

How do you keep going? How do you not just disengage, Mark? 

How do I keep going? It’s really hard. It can be so discouraging. I literally pour my heart and soul and everything I have into this, around the clock.

There’s a daily drumbeat of gun violence in our cities and towns across this country every day. It’s hard to keep going. But then I tell myself I’m doing this to honor my little Daniel and to save other families from having to endure this pain. And when I think of it like that — and when I know that we have solutions, and I know we can stop this — I can’t give up. I can’t just say “This is too hard and I have to stop.” That’s not an option for me.