Dear Ms. Nicole Hockley,
I have read your open letter to me dated November 15, 2017 regarding gun violence. I wanted to respond sooner, and I tried to do so on December 14th, the 5 year anniversary of the death of your son, Dylan, at Sandy Hook Elementary, but found myself at a loss for words. So perhaps it is fitting that I write to you now, while you and your family are here in Washington, DC for “March for Our Lives,” in support of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Please let me first offer my deepest sympathies for your loss. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said: “There is no tragedy in life like the death of a child. Things never get back to the way they were.” I agree with that sentiment. Life’s natural order is for children to bury their parents. Only in times of war should a mother ever bury her child first. Dylan was in first grade. He was not a soldier. But he was a casualty in a war on our own soil.
As a parent myself, one of the most painful realizations I’ve had is that I will not be alive to witness all of my child’s life. I will not know how “it all turned out.” As a parent, you will witness your child’s birth, nurse their skinned knees, cheer them on at their college graduations, walk them down the aisle at their wedding and spoil your grandchildren until that final day when we, as parents, take our last breath and let them go on to live their lives without us. I often reflect on the pain of that final day — not in my own death, but in knowing I will never know how my child’s story ends.
Dylan’s story did not end naturally. The pages of his life were torn out by a mass shooter. I know you still have your son Jake with you and that must be some comfort to you, but I imagine when you lose one child, the worst thing that can be said is to take comfort in the child you still have. How would I feel if someone asked me to choose which child I could live without?
You have asked me not to accept these national tragedies as the “norm.” I want you to know that I will not. To accept mass shootings as the norm in our society is to say that your son Dylan died in vain. To accept mass shootings as the norm is to say that all the other men, women and children who have died at the hands of gun violence have also died in vain. No one dies a violent death in vain. If they did, that would mean we are willing to sacrifice our most vulnerable, our children, to maintain a violent way of life. That cannot be who we are as a society.
We have all heard the expression we are only as strong as our weakest link. If our weakest link is allowing anyone to pick up a military-grade weapon and senselessly slaughter innocent people then I would say we are not a very strong country at all. Our freedom to own a gun is not absolute and inflexible and should not include the ability to own any possible weapon of war intended for use solely by trained experts. There must be a reasonable balance.
You have made many salient points including Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) to protect families and communities from gun violence, federal public safety grants, and more. I want you to know that I was truly moved by your final line to me: “To have part of my legacy be in protecting American lives.”
As you know, gun control is a volatile issue in our country, but we have weathered many volatile issues in our history before and we’ve always made the right choice in the end. We did so after we searched our souls and realized that doing what is right may not always be what is popular at the time.
So, I would ask all of us to search our souls now. Do we have a spiritual contract to leave the world a better place than we found it? Have we left the world a better place when children are dying in the arms of their teachers? Have we left the world a better place when we are dying in theaters or concert halls or nightclubs or praying in our churches?
To change the hearts and minds of those we must change will be difficult. Hell, it’s going to be nearly impossible. Change is always messy in the beginning, cleaner in the middle and glorious in the end. Still, time is and always has been on the side of change.
Love of country and love of each other can look like many things to many people. But genuine love is never toxic. I will not be alive to see the end of my children’s story, but I will do everything in my power that when they see the end of mine — they will know I did what I could to leave the world a better place for them.
Thank you again for your letter, Ms. Hockley. I will keep it, and the memory of your son, with me always.
The President of the United States.
P.S. Ms. Hockley, this is me now, speaking directly to you. The President may never read your letter. He may never respond. But I wanted you to know that I read your letter. I felt it deserved a response.
You deserve to be heard. You have a voice. We all have a voice.
If we all don’t speak up, our voices will never be heard.
I want to acknowledge how extraordinarily difficult it must have been to write that letter. I am grateful you found the strength to write it. Your experience and knowledge has incredible value. No one else has your unique perspective. That holds true for all of us — and why we should all speak up about the issues we care about. Words have power. Silence is deemed as approval.
Your letter reminded us to have the courageous conversations we all need to be having with our friends, our families, our churches, and our communities.
Your letter reminded us to write our own letters — even if we suspect we may never get a response from the person to whom they are written.
Sometimes we don’t know who our words are truly meant for —but we must trust they will find the person who needs them. In speaking your truth, you will also find you are not alone in your thinking.
Each day we are writing a page in our own life story, by using the words we speak and the words we do not. With the actions we take and the actions we do not. We are the stories we tell each other and the stories we tell ourselves.
Your story, Nicole Hockley, is a powerful story. But it is not a tragedy. It is a love story. All stories are love stories in the end.
I believe we do have a spiritual contract to leave the world a better place.
Your letter to the President was about leaving the world a better place. That is love. That is the love you have for Dylan, for Jake, and for the world itself.
You have not let Dylan down. You have not let yourself down.
You have, instead, lifted all of us up with you.
Thank you for using your voice, Nicole.
We hear you.
Read Nicole Hockley’s Open Letter to the President in The Guardian: