2 Fathers Who Lost Their Sons In School Shootings Transform Their Grief Into Action

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Mark Barden, who lost his son Daniel in the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, testifies on assault weapon legislation in Illinois in 2013. (Seth Perlman/AP)
Mark Barden, who lost his son Daniel in the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, testifies on assault weapon legislation in Illinois in 2013. (Seth Perlman/AP)

Five years ago Thursday, a young man walked into the Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and shot and killed 26 children and adults. The killings left the mothers and fathers, the brothers and sisters of the victims to cope with a long and painful period of grief.

Mark Barden and Greg Gibson know a lot about that kind of grief. Barden's young son was killed at Sandy Hook. Gibson's son was killed in a mass shooting exactly 20 years earlier.

"This is the life that we knew and loved prior to that morning,” says Barden, as he pulls a photograph out of a manila folder.

It’s a picture of his three children -- James, Natalie and Daniel, when they were ages 12, 10 and 6 -- smiling and hugging each other. Daniel has blond hair and blue eyes, a missing front tooth and appears to beam with happiness. Barden says his youngest child loved animals of all kinds, including ants and earthworms -- so much so that he and his wife, Jackie, called him "the caretaker of all living things."

"He was very affectionate and always wanted to cuddle," Barden says of Daniel.

Barden recalls the cold December morning five years ago, when his family began its morning routine. Before the sun was even up, he walked his oldest son, James, down the driveway to catch the early school bus.

White balloons decorate the sign for the Sandy Hook Elementary School, on Dec. 15, 2012. (David Goldman/AP)
White balloons decorate the sign for the Sandy Hook Elementary School, on Dec. 15, 2012. (David Goldman/AP)

"And I hear little footsteps behind me and it’s Daniel,” Barden recalls. “He was just out there in his little pajamas -- he put flip flops on — and I said, 'It's cold. What are you doing?' He said, 'I want to come with you to the bus so I can hug James and tell him I love him.’ "

Daniel insisted on doing the same for his older sister, Natalie, when she left. Then, it was his turn to catch his bus.

"Daniel and I enjoyed our quiet alone time in that last hour,” Barden says. “[Then], we walked to the bus, and I hugged him and kissed him and told him I loved him."

Not long after that came the texts and the phone calls about a lockdown at Daniel's school. At first, Barden wasn’t concerned, and thought it might have been a fire drill or some other minor event. But then came reports of a shooting, and as the morning wore on, he learned that a gunman had shot his way into Daniel’s school and killed six educators and 20 first-grade children.

“And this sweet little boy, the caretaker of all living things, the light of happiness in our little family was among those 20 first-grade children who had been shot to death,” Barden says. “During those first weeks, my wife Jackie and I would be collapsed literally on the floor in a heap, just sobbing and crying … whispering to each other, ‘I just want to die.’ ”

Barden says it was 12-year-old James and 10-year-old Natalie who gave them the strength to move forward.

“They would find us and wrap their arms around us and hold us," he recalls. "It's kind of the opposite of what you might think."

'Right Away, Our Hearts Flew To Them'

Galen Gibson (Courtesy of the Gibson family)
Galen Gibson (Courtesy of the Gibson family)

It is easy to understand such grief, but Greg Gibson and his wife Annie have lived it. Their son, Galen, was murdered on the same day exactly 20 years earlier, in the same way, as Daniel Barden.

Galen Gibson attended Simon's Rock College in western Massachusetts, and was among two people shot dead by a troubled fellow student armed with a semi-automatic rifle. Every year since then, on December 14, Greg Gibson, his wife and two surviving children would gather at the cemetery not far from their home in Gloucester.

"The whole family would set up a little Christmas tree on [Galen’s] grave,” Gibson says. “I know it sounds like a mournful, sad thing, but actually it's joyous in a way, [because] it's something the whole family still gets to do that includes Galen."

But on that cold December day in 2012, they heard the terrible news about Sandy Hook, and knew what those families were going through.

"And right away, our hearts flew to them because we knew what that moment was, and we knew what the next years would be like,” Gibson says.

So he reached out to the Sandy Hook families, drove down to Newtown, and ended up talking with Barden, who describes their first meeting as “therapeutic.”

“I remember coming out of that [meeting] with a sense of lift,” Barden says. “I felt, here was somebody who didn't suffer this particular tragedy, but who could absolutely relate. And I just remember a lot of comfort in that.”

As they talked, the two men discovered a remarkable, maybe spooky, but certainly sad coincidence. Not only did their sons die on the same calendar day, but they also shared the same birthday, September 27.

"Which is just amazingly coincidental when you consider that they both died the same way — violently, prematurely, in a hail of gunfire in a school,” Barden says. “What does that tell you about our society? Especially now [in October], as we sit here contemplating what happened in Las Vegas. It says to me that [these mass shootings] happen a lot."

For his part, Gibson calls it a "weird coincidence," and asks, “what does it mean?”

But in the next breath he dismisses the search for meaning in this particular coincidence. "People … are very happy to talk about what a weird coincidence it is that two people can be born and shot on the same day 20 years apart," Gibson says.

But he wonders why more people are not interested in how we can stop this kind of tragedy from happening again.

“That's the mystery to me,” Gibson says.

Meeting His Son's Killer

Greg Gibson, with a photo of his son's killer, Wayne Lo, on a computer screen (Anthony Brooks/WBUR)
Greg Gibson, with a photo of his son's killer, Wayne Lo, on a computer screen (Anthony Brooks/WBUR)

The murder of his son sent Gibson on a long journey that began with grief and rage. Then he investigated what happened to his son and why, and wrote a book about it, "Gone Boy." He also set up the Galen Gibson Fund to help survivors of gun violence and to push for stronger gun safety laws.

Such laws might have prevented his son's killer, Wayne Lo, from purchasing the rifle at a local gun store, and ordering high capacity magazines through the mail.

Lo was carrying more than 200 rounds, and shot six people, killing two of them, including Galen. It was only because his gun kept jamming that he didn't kill many more. Lo was sent to prison for life, and then seven years after he shot and killed Galen, he wrote to Greg Gibson, expressing regret for what he did. Lo even made a contribution to the Galen Gibson Fund -- so Greg Gibson began a correspondence with him.

“We're so good on punishment, but we don't seem to have a good system at all for reparation or reconciliation or any of that,” says Gibson, who says he’s impressed that while in prison, Lo figured out on his own how to make some token effort to repay what he's done.

“Is that a spiritual awakening?” Gibson asks. “Yeah, I mean maybe. Or maybe it's just a con."

Either way, he agreed to meet Lo face-to-face for the first time in October -- almost 25 years after Lo killed his son. Gibson says he came away from the conversation -- which was recorded by the oral history project, "StoryCorps" — believing that Lo's sense of remorse is real. But Gibson says it is more important that his son's killer has something important to say about America's problem with gun violence.

“[Lo] said to me so many times, ‘You know, the worst aspect of this whole thing was how easy it was. When I was disturbed and thought I needed to kill people, I could still walk into a gun store and buy a gun and order ammunition and modify my gun,’ ” Gibson recalls. “The horror was the ease with which all this happened. So that's a powerful message."

Barden speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 17, 2013, as President Obama and former Rep. Gabby Giffords look on. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Barden speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 17, 2013, as President Obama and former Rep. Gabby Giffords look on. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Back in Newtown, Barden is on a similar path to Gibson's, though he started 20 years later. The grief over Daniel's death is still fresh, but, like Gibson, he too is trying to transform it into action that will reduce gun deaths.

“I have an opportunity to effect change and prevent this from happening to another family,” Barden says. “I can't not do that. I don’t have a choice."

Barden co-founded Sandy Hook Promise, which teaches educators and parents to recognize when someone might be on the verge of using a gun to harm others or themselves. The warning signs are often visible — isolation, anger, a fascination with guns — as they were with Lo and Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer.

Barden is proud that more than 2 million people in all 50 states have adopted the program. But it pains him that mass killings continue — as they did in Las Vegas.

"It brings back all kinds of horrible memories of the days following the massacre that took the life of my little Daniel,” says Barden, who admits that he used the word “defeated” in the days following the Las Vegas massacre. “But I know that the work that we are doing has stopped school shootings. And all I can promise is that I will continue to honor my little Daniel."

Gibson expresses a similar sentiment about how he has tried to turn the tragedy of Galen’s murder into something positive.

“Almost since the moment Galen was killed it's been my constant meditation and focus to take this terrible thing and find some good in it,” Gibson says. “Because if we can't and it drags us down, it wins. And that's not supportable — out of respect to Galen or anybody who has died in this manner."

Gibson compares America's gun problem to cancer, a disease that will take a long time to beat. Twenty years after the murder of his son, Galen, five years after the murder of Daniel Barden, the country is still looking for a cure.

This article was originally published on October 17, 2017.

This segment aired on October 17, 2017.


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Anthony Brooks Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.



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