'Let's translate suffering into action this time'
Sandy Hook parents want gun controls to be legacy of loved ones killed in violent rampage
Published 23/12/2012 | 05:00
It is more than any eight-year-old child should have to endure. Michael Nikitchyuk – a boy known to everyone by his nickname Bear – attended three wakes for schoolmates in just one grief-filled day last week.
One of those sad memorials was for Dylan Hockley, the British child who was among the 20 six- and seven year-olds shot dead with six teaching staff in America's bloodiest school massacre.
Bear's parents know that if it had not been for the bravery of the teacher who pulled their son out of the line of fire, he would have been another victim of a gunman on a mission to kill with a military-style semi-automatic rifle.
Andrei and Erin Nikitchyuk have now emerged as forceful campaigners for tighter gun laws in the US following the horrors at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut. And this weekend they explained that new mission.
"A teacher saved my kid's life and I'm enormously grateful," said Mr Nikitchyuk. "But now we have to save other kids' lives by changing gun laws in this country. Things cannot remain the same."
That conviction was only deepened by their outrage at the demand by the National Rifle Association, the powerful pro-gun group, that the response to the atrocity should be to deploy armed guards in every school.
"We can't turn our schools into fortresses," said Mr Nikitchyuk. "The answer is not for guards to wait for gunmen in body armour to attack with assault rifles."
It was a view widely echoed across Newtown last week, even by gun owners.
This is a New England country town with a long tradition of firearms and hunting but where 20 children will not be opening their Christmas presents because of the rampage.
Chris Murphy, the Democratic senator-elect from Connecticut, said he was sickened when he heard of the NRA's comments.
"The solution for this country is not to become one big armed camp," he said.
On the morning of December 14, Bear Nikitchyuk had been heading towards the office of Dawn Hochsprung, the school's headmistress, to deliver his class morning attendance report when he heard a violent crackle ripping through the corridor.
His first thought was that the commotion sounded like an Incredible Hulk film, he later told his mother. In fact, he had almost walked into the barrage of gunfire unleashed by Adam Lanza after he shot his way through the locked entrance to Sandy Hook elementary school.
The 20-year-old gunman was unloading his Bushmaster.223 rifle on Mrs Hochsprung and the school psychologist as they dashed out of an office to tackle him.
Both were shot dead. And Bear's parents have no doubt that their son would have been mown down then too if Abby Clements, a teacher, had not risked her life by stepping into the firing line to pull him into her classroom.
"I saw smoke and I smelled smoke," he said, "then bullets whizzed by. When everyone heard the bullets they went into a total panic."
When Mrs Nikitchyuk arrived at the nearby fire station to collect him, there were the hugs and tears of relief at their reunion, but she also witnessed the hysterical weeping of those learning the extent of the shooting.
"I think there will be a burden on every child who survived that day to feel they need to do something significant with their life," she said. "There will never be an answer that makes sense about why this happened. But we can make a difference in the future."
Mr Nikitchyuk was born in the former Soviet Union but is a naturalised US citizen who has lived there for 22 years.
And on Tuesday, he joined a group of relatives of victims and survivors of gun violence who travelled to Washington to meet senior White House officials to lobby for tougher gun laws.
They came from Aurora, Virginia, Tucson, Columbine and the scenes of other rampages that sometimes blur in the memory – a sad litany of massacres which have brought so much suffering and so little change.
"Those events horrified me too, but I was one of the silent majority and eventually I returned to your daily life and started to forget," said Mr Nikitchyuk. "But not this time, this is different.
"Assault weapons have no place in our society. What type of sportsman needs these?
"Enough is enough, we can do better than this. I believe this time the agenda has truly changed. We have to translate this anger and suffering into action," he said.