Ambassador Susan E. Rice Remarks at Sandy Hook Promise Champions Gala
As Prepared For Delivery:
Thank you, Stephanie. Good evening, everybody. Mark, Jackie, Bill—thank you for sharing those precious memories of Daniel and Mary. I’m awed by your strength and grace, and my heart is with you and everyone whose lives have been devastated by gun violence.
Almost ten years ago, on December 14th, the day began like any other at Sandy Hook Elementary, like every day at schools around the nation. Parents dropped off their kids. Teachers finalized their lessons. It was almost Christmas, and Newtown was covered with holiday decorations.
Then, in an instant, everything changed. Twenty beautiful children and six heroic teachers— murdered. An elementary school turned into a war zone. A community shattered.
On that horrific day, I was still the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. The previous day, I had asked President Obama to withdraw my name from consideration as Secretary of State. I wanted to avoid any prolonged confirmation battle, waged over my Sunday show appearances in the wake of the terrorist attack in Benghazi, which I feared could sideline the President’s second term agenda. Little did I know that gun violence would immediately catapult to the top of that agenda.
I was in Washington, at the White House, that Friday morning for a series of meetings, including a private one with President Obama to discuss my decision and the path ahead.
It was only after I came out of a long meeting in the White House Situation Room, where we cannot have phones or computers, that I learned the unfathomable news from Newtown.
When President Obama and I met in the Oval Office, our discussion turned immediately to Sandy Hook. We struggled to process what had happened. As parents, we fumbled to find words. To capture the pain we could only imagine—of those, you—who had just lost children a few years younger than our own.
What I remember most about that conversation is not any of the words but the visceral emotions we shared. Shock. Helplessness. Fury. Piercing pain. A little while later, President Obama delivered a searing statement, in tears, from the White House Briefing Room. I watched from a nearby office, surrounding by colleagues, all of us crying together.
What Newtown endured that day and since is unimaginable for most of us. Yet, far too many families and communities can imagine, because they have had to endure it. Too many Americans have been stolen from us while simply living their lives. Going to the movies in Aurora. Studying the Bible in Charleston. Dancing at a nightclub in Orlando. Enjoying a country music concert in Las Vegas. Shopping at a Walmart in El Paso and a TOPS in Buffalo. And, yet again, just going to elementary school, in Uvalde, Texas.
And then there are our city streets, all across America, where daily—disproportionately in Black and brown communities—shots fly and lives are cut short. This constant carnage rarely makes the nightly news. But, 321 fellow Americans are shot every day in this country, and folks act like that is normal. Like this is somehow simply the price we are supposed to pay to live in a free society.
What kind of warped freedom is this? What the hell is the matter with us?
In the decade since Sandy Hook, I have known the horror of incessant shootings—first as President Obama’s National Security Advisor, when I was charged with keeping Americans safe from threats, foreign and domestic. And now, as President Biden’s Domestic Policy Advisor, I am responsible for leading a team of more than a dozen at the Domestic Policy Council and many more throughout the White House and the federal government, with the mandate to do all we can to reduce gun violence.
Throughout, like you, I have also absorbed these atrocities as a human being and a parent—the mother of two now young adults who go to school and work and grocery stores and concerts themselves. Every day, I worry about their safety. I’m forever furious.
And every time, I wonder if this time could actually be different.
It’s been said by many before. But, this time really might be different. This time, we must finally make things different. This time, as President Biden demanded in his address to the nation, we must actually do something.
Something to stop the more than 100 gun deaths a day.
Something to make it harder—not easier—to access weapons of war.
Something more than blaming shootings on mental health while hypocritically under-funding mental health budgets.
It’s way past time we do something. Finally.
Sandy Hook Promise, you have shown us what it is to do something. “Our hearts are broken,” you declared. “Our spirit is not.” In honor of those you lost, you made a promise to do everything in your power to protect America’s children from the horror that came to Sandy Hook. Teaching millions of students and educators to “Know the Signs” a student could be a danger to themselves or others. Averting violence through more than a hundred thousand anonymous tips. Advocating for greater school safety. That’s doing something.
President Biden is also doing something. In his first year and a half in office, this President has taken more executive action to curb gun violence than any president at this point in their presidency. We’re cracking down on “ghost guns.” And major gun-trafficking corridors. And arm braces that effectively turn pistols into short-barreled rifles. We’ve established a zero-tolerance policy for rogue gun dealers. Put out model red flag legislation for states. Promoted suicide prevention and safe firearm storage. We’re investing billions to hire more police officers, expand community violence intervention, and support mental health in schools. And, we’re going to continue to do all we can through executive action to prevent gun violence and make Americans safer.
Yet, there are real limits on what any President can do. The preponderance of power in this realm lies with Congress. Now, again, it’s up to Congress to do something.
We appreciate the tireless work that produced the bipartisan Senate gun safety framework, in particular the leadership and relentless efforts of Senator Chris Murphy. Obviously, this framework does not do all that is needed. But, if enacted, it would reflect an important step in the right direction. It would be the most significant gun safety legislation to pass Congress in three decades. As Senator Murphy said, “This is a compromise, but it is a difference maker… this is going to stop a lot of suicides, a lot of homicides, and save a lot of lives in this country.”
But, that can’t be the end of our efforts. That won’t be the end of our efforts. Support for gun safety among the American people is the highest it’s been in a decade. There’s a real recognition—on both sides of the aisle—that inaction is not an option. We must seize this moment. We must not let up.
As long as a teenager—or anyone—can stroll into a gun store and purchase an assault weapon and high capacity magazine, we must not let up.
As long as our background check system allows dangerous weapons to fall into dangerous hands, we must not let up.
As long as our mental health crisis is deepened by the trauma of gun violence, we must not let up.
As long as gun manufacturers enjoy a level of immunity from liability greater than any other industry, we must not let up—because, earlier this year, a number of Sandy Hook families showed us how these merchants of death can be held accountable.
Indeed—our hearts are broken; our spirits are not.
As you all know too well, making progress on gun safety is hard—exceptionally hard.
But, whenever I’m tempted to fall prey to cynicism or despair, I think of families like yours who have found the courage not only to go on, but to turn tragedy into transformation.
I think of the thousands of Americans who marched for our lives this past weekend in Washington and across the country—as I marched with my teenage daughter and husband in 2018. I hear the chants of “Vote them out!” and see the signs saying, “I go to school to get A’s, not PTSD.”
Young people, our children, are not going to give up.
As parents, we won’t give up.
Their grandparents won’t give up.
As Domestic Policy Advisor, I won’t give up.
And, you can be sure President Joe Biden won’t ever give up.
Ten years after Sandy Hook, let us keep our promise. Let us turn our outrage into sustained action. Let us continue building an America where young people can look to the future not with fear but with high hope.
Thank you, and God bless you.