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Some in Newtown, Conn. couple activism with mourning

By Katie Zezima

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Dec. 24 2012 3:24 p.m. MST

FILE - In this Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012 file photo, Christmas stockings with the names of shooting victims hang from railing near a makeshift memorial near the town Christmas tree in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn. In the wake of the shooting, the grieving town is trying to find meaning in Christmas.

Julio Cortez, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

NEWTOWN, Conn. — People drawn to Newtown to share in its mourning brought cards and handmade snowflakes to town Monday while residents prepared to observe Christmas less than two weeks after a gunman killed 20 children and six educators at an elementary school.

On Christmas Eve, residents planned to light luminaries outside their homes in memory of the victims. Tiny empty Christmas stockings with the victims' names on them hung from trees in the neighborhood where the children were shot.

"We know that they'll feel loved. They'll feel that somebody actually cares," said Treyvon Smalls, a 15-year-old from a few towns away who arrived at town hall with hundreds of cards and paper snowflakes collected from around the state. Organizers said they wanted to let the families of victims know they are not alone while also giving Connecticut children a chance to express their feelings about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Police say 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother in her bed before his Dec. 14 rampage and committed suicide as he heard officers arriving. Authorities have yet to give a theory about his motive.

While the grief is still fresh, some residents are urging political activism in the wake of the tragedy. A grassroots group called Newtown United has been meeting at the library to talk about issues ranging from gun control, to increasing mental health services to the types of memorials that could be erected for the victims. Some clergy members have said they also intend to push for change.

"We seek not to be the town of tragedy," said Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel. "But, we seek to be the town where all the great changes started."

Since the shooting, messages similar to the ones delivered Monday have arrived from around the world. People have donated toys, books, money and more. A United Way fund, one of many, has collected $3 million. People have given nearly $500,000 to a memorial scholarship fund at the University of Connecticut.

In the center of Newtown's Sandy Hook section Monday, a steady stream of residents and out-of-towners snapped pictures, lit candles and dropped off children's gifts at an expansive memorial filled with stuffed animals, poems, flowers, posters and cards.

"All the families who lost those little kids, Christmas will never be the same," said Philippe Poncet, a Newtown resident originally from France. "Everybody across the world is trying to share the tragedy with our community here."

Richard Scinto, a deacon at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, which was attended by eight children killed in the massacre, said the church's pastor, Rev. Robert Weiss, used several eulogies this week to tell his congregation to get angry and take action against what some consider is a culture of gun violence in the country.

Praver and Scinto said they are not opposed to hunting or to having police in schools, but both said something must be done to change what has become a culture of violence in the United States.

"These were his mother's guns," Scinto said. "Why would anyone want an assault rifle as part of a private citizen collection?"

A mediator who worked with Adam Lanza's parents during their divorce has said Lanza was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, an autism-like disorder that is not associated with violence. It is not known whether he had other mental health issues. The guns used in the shooting had been purchased legally by his mother, Nancy Lanza, a gun enthusiast.

Gun control and mental health have also been topics at Newtown United meetings, along with what types of memorials would be most appropriate and any other action residents can take to feel like they are doing something.

"We don't want Newtown to go on the list with Columbine, Tucson and Virginia Tech and only have it associated with horrible acts," said Lee Shull, who moderated a Newton United meeting just days after the shootings. "We want to turn this into something positive. What can we do?"

A handful of people showed up to the group's first meeting at the town library two days after the Dec. 14 shooting. The next night, 35 attended, most scrawling ideas and notes on white paper covering the tables. A few days later there was barely room to maneuver around the meeting room when two guests showed up: Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Sen.-elect Chris Murphy, Connecticut Democrats who told the group they planned to push for gun control legislation and needed their constituents to help them press the issue in Washington.

The group sees itself as a way to spark a local and national dialogue and action in the aftermath of a tragedy. It's also a way to do something, anything, to cope with the sadness that has settled over Newtown.

Said resident John Neuhall: "Our hearts are broken wide open and we're here out of grief and out of love for those families."

Associated Press Writers Pat Eaton-Robb and John Christoffersen contributed to this report.

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