Mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. (Photo: USA Today)
By Gary Stoller
NEWTOWN, Conn. - More than two dozen bicyclists plan to leave Saturday on a 400-mile ride to Washington to "raise awareness for common-sense gun legislation" and honor 26 children and adults killed by a gunman Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The riders will stop for several rallies along the route, according to the event's organizer, Monte Frank. They will join members of the Virginia Tech Victims Cycling team Tuesday in College Park, Md.
The team, formed to honor 32 people killed in shootings at that university in April 2007, will accompany the Newtown-originated riders to the Capitol, where a final rally will take place.
During the first leg of the Sandy Hook Ride On Washington, the cyclists will be joined, Frank says, by Chris McDonnell, whose 7-year-old daughter, Grace, was one of the victims at the elementary school.
Frank, a Newtown lawyer and a former member of Cornell University's cycling team, says his 11-year-old daughter, Sarah, a sixth-grade student, was instrumental in founding the event.
Sarah's teacher three years ago at Sandy Hook Elementary was Victoria Soto, who was killed trying to defend her students Dec. 14.
Sarah had a close relationship with Soto, Frank says, and recently wrote an essay - posted on the Sandy Hook Ride on Washington Facebook page - about why her father was organizing the event.
"My dad rides to honor (Victoria Soto) and the other 25 victims," Sara wrote. "We have to prevent this from happening again and protect innocent lives. My dad rides to show that a small town in the middle of a tragedy can bring about change."
Frank, who has lived in Sandy Hook, a village within Newtown, for 10 years and serves as a town attorney, says he senses a growing grass-roots movement pushing for stronger gun-control laws throughout the country.
"We have gotten to the point where we recognize we have an epidemic of gun violence," Frank says. "The current situation is not tolerable for a sophisticated and developed nation."
The ride will begin with a rally - to be attended by several local government officials and federal legislators, including Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy - at Newtown's Reed Intermediate School.
The riders will cycle to the Sandy Hook firehouse for a moment of silence for the victims and a show of support for first responders. The firehouse is at the end of a street leading to Sandy Hook Elementary School and the place where students and faculty took refuge after the shootings.
The riders will next pass the facilities of other fire, police and ambulance responders before heading for another rally in Ridgefield, Conn., Frank says.
Rallies are planned in three New Jersey towns and in Baltimore with the city's mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
The events are in sync with the sentiments of many Newtown residents who, Frank says, don't want the shootings to define the town as a place of tragedy.
"We want to be remembered as a town that went to work to change the gun culture in our society and put stronger laws in place to reduce gun violence," Frank says.
On Dec. 15 - one day after gunman Adam Lanza killed his mother, Nancy, at their Sandy Hook home before killing Soto and 25 others at Sandy Hook school - Frank and his wife, Leah, had to sit down and explain to Sarah what had happened to her former teacher.
"Those were not conversations any parent should have with their 11-year-old child, and those conversations will haunt me the rest of my life," Frank says. "I'm committed to do what I can to prevent another tragedy from happening elsewhere."