Eight days after 49 people were killed and dozens more were injured in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, the Senate is poised to vote on four gun control proposals aimed at addressing the "terror gap" (a loophole that allows people on the federal terror watch list to purchase firearms legally) as well as background checks. Monday's vote comes after Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy and others filibustered for more than 15 hours to demand action. The amendments — two of which were proposed by Democrats, two others by Republicans — offer competing guidelines about how to delay or ban people on the terror watch list from buying guns. For Erica Lafferty Smegielski, who lost her mother, Dawn Hochsprung, in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, the vote on background checks is a long time coming. Hochsprung, the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School, died trying to defend her students and colleagues when a gunman opened fire on December 14. Since then, Lafferty Smegielski, 30, has dedicated her life to gun violence prevention and advocacy work. Now a senior outreach associate at Everytown for Gun Safety, she spoke with Refinery29 on her way to Capitol Hill to speak with senators ahead of the vote.
[After Sandy Hook], it took four months then to get a vote on background checks; after Orlando, it took four days.
"My mom was the principal who was murdered in the Sandy Hook school shooting. I think for a really long time after, probably the first two months after the shooting, I just kept thinking, Mommy wouldn’t want me to be so sad. Mommy wouldn’t want me to be so sad. "Then I heard about the background check bill that was going up in the Senate, the bill that was defeated in 2013, and it was an eye-opener; it was a wake-up call for me. I could literally hear her voice saying, ‘Go for it. You need to do this. You need to act on this. You need to make sure this doesn’t continue to happen.’ I mean, really, she has been my driving force behind all of this and is definitely why I got into the gun violence prevention movement. "Throughout the past three and a half years, I have met countless survivors of gun violence and family members of victims of gun violence, and it’s not just about my mom anymore. There are more than 90 Americans that are shot and killed every day, [and] countless others are injured. Really, it’s about making it less frequent. "I don’t think that in my lifetime we will get to a point where there is no gun violence, but you know, the way that our laws are written right now, it’s way too easy for dangerous people to get their hands on guns. Background checks are at the heart and soul of that, because it’s the quickest and easiest way we can make sure that we keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous people."
[My mom] lived how she died, protecting her kids. That’s her legacy.
"It absolutely is frustrating, but at the same time, from Sandy Hook, if you look at [what] the gun violence prevention movement was then and where it is now, it’s incredible. The topic of gun violence is no longer a political third rail. It’s something that is talked about on the news nearly every single day, and that wasn’t the case before Sandy Hook. It took four months then to get a vote on background checks; after Orlando, it took four days. This definitely is something that’s at the forefront of politics right now."
"I’m actually on my way there now, and I mean [I] really can’t wait to get to Senator Murphy’s office, and [Sens.] Booker and Blumenthal’s offices, to show my sincere appreciation for everything they have done. Not only during the filibuster in that grueling 15 hours for them, but for the past three and a half years. "The senators from Connecticut have been with us every single step of the way, and I know they are not going to turn their backs on us. So, first and foremost, it’s about saying thank you and letting them know that we are all here standing behind them, and we are all going to be in this fight with them. "Then I definitely want to stop by the offices of some people who I don’t think are going to vote the right way today, and just give them hopefully a little encouragement, and just urge them to disarm hate, and vote on the side of public safety."
How did you feel when you saw Senator Murphy start that filibuster and be joined by other colleagues in support over that 15 hours?
"Proud. My words are escaping me, but that’s the best one I can come up with. I was proud to be from Connecticut, I was proud to be represented by him, I was proud to have voted for him. It was just so incredible and so amazing, and he had said going into it he was going to stay on that floor all night if it took that to get the vote in. And he did that. I felt that was a big win."
This isn’t about taking guns away; it’s about people being responsible and keeping them out of dangerous hands.
"I think that the simplest way to put it is ensuring that there is a background check done on every gun sale, and that people who aren’t allowed to board a plane because they are on a terror watch list can’t go into a gun dealer and buy an AR-15 in seven minutes. Further than that, we want to make sure people are safely storing their firearms. This isn’t about taking guns away; it’s about people being responsible and keeping them out of dangerous hands. Locked up, stored safely, and out of reach of children. We see far too many really preventable shootings because firearms have been left out."
What do you think has changed between Sandy Hook and Orlando, both for the positive and the negative?
"I think the negative is that there are many, many of our leaders, our elected officials, who are still in the pocket of the gun lobby. I am confident that will begin to change after the November election. People are really paying attention to this now. But we definitely have made some great progress. There have been some really great gun laws that were passed in half a dozen states. There’s been a lot of motion on domestic violence bills, there’s been an entire movement and response to survivors that didn’t exist prior to Sandy Hook. And that’s there now. The numbers are large and the voices are loud, and for the first time, ever, there is a counterweight to the gun lobby."
Why was it important for you to dedicate yourself to this work and to raise your voice in particular?
"Because it’s what my mom would do for me. I think it’s that simple."
I think for a really long time after, probably the first two months after the shooting, I just kept thinking, 'Mommy wouldn’t want me to be so sad.'
"That it’s something that is preventable. There are very common-sense steps that we can take to significantly reduce the number of gun deaths, and injuries that we face on a daily basis. There’s definitely a lot of work to still be done, but everyone has a voice, everyone can cast a vote. We have to take those tools and use them. We have a great network of people who can support and guide you to doing that."
What would you like people to know about your mom and her memory?
"She lived how she died, protecting her kids. That’s her legacy. That was always her single focus — as a single mom raising two girls, we were always her primary focus. And even in her death, the kids that were in her school were all she could think about and she literally gave her life to protect them."
What is your advice for young women?
"Speak up, get involved, find out what matters to you and do absolutely everything you can to have a leading voice on the issues that matter. There’s nothing you can’t do. My mom told me that for as long as I can remember. She wrote me in this card one time, it was actually my college graduation, she wrote: ‘My sweet baby girl, you now have your hard-earned opportunity to change the world.’ I think every single young woman has that."
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.