NEWTOWN, Connecticut (AP) — Bells tolled 26 times Saturday to honor the children and educators killed one year ago in a shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School as local churches held memorial services and President Barack Obama observed a moment of silence.
With snow falling and many homes decorated with Christmas lights, Newtown looked every bit the classic northeastern New England town, with long lines at a coffee shop and general store. But reminders of the private grief were everywhere. "God bless the families," read a sign posted at one house in the green and white colors of the Sandy Hook school, and a church posted that it was "open for prayer."
Ryan Knaggs, a chef who lives in Newtown, said that as the bells tolled he thought of two young victims who played soccer with his 7-year-old daughter.
"The echo of the bells, knowing some of the children personally, you feel the exactitude with each bell ... the exactitude of the loss and the grief," Knaggs said.
The bells rang 26 times at St. Rose of Lima church in Newtown beginning at 9:30 a.m. — the moment the gunman shot his way into the school on Dec. 14, 2012 — and names of the victims were read over a loudspeaker. Connecticut's governor had asked for bells to ring across the state and directed that flags be lowered to half-staff.
In Washington, the president and first lady Michelle Obama lit 26 votive candles set up on a table in the White House Map Room and then marked the anniversary with a moment of silence.
In his weekly radio address released hours earlier, Obama said the nation hasn't done enough to make its communities safer by keeping dangerous people from getting guns and healing troubled minds.
"We have to do more to keep dangerous people from getting their hands on a gun so easily. We have to do more to heal troubled minds. We have to do everything we can to protect our children from harm and make them feel loved, and valued, and cared for," Obama said.
A year ago, with the grief of the horrific school shootings still fresh, many predicted it would force Congress to approve long-stalled legislation to tighten U.S. gun laws. Led by Obama, gun control advocates called for background checks for all gun purchasers and a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. But their efforts were thwarted by the gun rights lobby, led by the influential National Rifle Association; opposition from most Republicans and the reluctance of Democrats from Republican-leaning states to anger voters by further restricting firearms.
In the end, a divided Congress did not enact any new gun curbs in response to the Newtown shooting. There were not enough votes in the Senate to pass even a compromise on expanded background checks that was widely supported by voters. A handful of Democratic-led states, including Connecticut, did enact stricter gun control measures, but some Republican-controlled states, including Texas, loosened their gun laws to expand the rights of people to carry guns in public. Surveys suggest that support for new gun laws is slipping as the Newtown memory fades.
Still, some Newtown parents who lost children in the Sandy Hook massacre vowed to press on with the fight to reduce gun violence — no matter how long it takes.
"I know it's not a matter of if it happens. It's a matter of when. This absolutely keeps me going," said Nicole Hockley, who joined a handful of Newtown parents in a private White House meeting with Vice President Joe Biden this week. "No matter how much tragedy affects you, you have to find a way forward. You have to invest in life." Hockley's 6-year-old son Dylan was killed at Sandy Hook a year ago.
The 20-year-old gunman, Adam Lanza, killed his mother inside their Newtown home on Dec. 14, 2012, before driving to the school where he carried out his rampage with his parent's weapons. He fatally shot 20 children and six educators before killing himself as police arrived at the school.
Anniversary observances were held around the country, including in Tucson, Arizona, where former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband were planting a yellow rose bush in a memorial garden created after the 2011 mass shooting that left six dead and 12 wounded, including Giffords who nearly died. Giffords' husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, said it is important to pause and support families of the Newtown victims.
Newtown residents asked for quiet and privacy on the anniversary.
Satellite television trucks filled Newtown's streets in the days after the shooting, and media have often returned since to the community of 28,000 people for stories related to the attack.
In an effort to keep the anniversary focused on quiet reflection, First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra announced in October that Newtown would not host any formal remembrance events. The news media were asked to keep their distance, and "No Media" signs went up around town as they did in the weeks after the tragedy.
Some news organizations stayed away Saturday from Newtown. A reporter and photographer for The Associated Press, whose reports are available to media worldwide, were present in the community, and some townspeople were willing to share their thoughts.
Andrew Snow, a mechanic who was drinking coffee at the general store with a friend, said it was an especially difficult day.
"You kind of hope the town can put it behind without actually forgetting about the victims," said Snow, who grew up in Newtown and is moving back from nearby Southbury to support the community. "But it's not easy to do. I think about it every day."