WASHINGTON — At the end of an emotional day of deeply personal meetings with senators Wednesday, families of victims of the Newtown school massacre sat down for a public conversation with Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who had just announced a dramatic compromise on gun control.
Behind them were dozens of reporters, part of a Washington press corps that has chronicled the families' high-profile visit to the Capitol. After Manchin and the families exchanged thanks, he turned to the press, ready to field questions, which he did for a while in his usual unflappable folksy style.
What effect had the high-profile presence of the Newtown families had on him, he was asked. Manchin looked to Mark Barden, father of Daniel, who sat beside him. The two men stared at each other for several moments, as their eyes and those of the other family members began to turn red.
"I'm a parent," he said, barely audible. "I'm a grandparent."
"I can't imagine," Manchin whispered, the only sound in the room the clicking of cameras and a senator and the parents of dead children sobbing. "I can do something. I can do something."
The electric moment came during a week in which 11 Newtown family members were escorted to Washington from Connecticut by President Barack Obama on Air Force One, bringing a long-shot mission: break up an impasse that had stalled and weakened gun control proposals designed to respond to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in which 20 children and six women were killed.
"I'm no expert in the timing and the specifics of this," said Nicole Hockley, mother of 6-year-old victim Dylan, after she arrived. "We're just looking to have face-to-face conversations about common-sense solutions. What we want is a vote."
The presence of the mothers and fathers of murdered children immediately registered as a weighty element in a contentious debate. A media horde tracked the families through the halls of the Senate office buildings, and legislators repeatedly brought up their meetings in speeches and press conferences. Throughout, the families, working with the Newtown-based Sandy Hook Promise group, spurned requests for interviews and declared that they were nonpartisan — even as they immersed themselves in a highly partisan gun control debate in Congress.
"You give, you are giving legislators more strength than you know,'' Manchin told the parents when they arrived at his office Wednesday afternoon for a photo opportunity. "You are saving lives,'' responded Barden.
"Nobody here in this great Capitol of ours with a good conscience could sit by and not try to prevent a day like that from happening again," Manchin said earlier in the day when he and Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey announced an agreement to support extending background checks for gun purchasers.
Just before their announcement, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy delivered an emotional Senate floor speech — his first — that centered on the families' presence in Washington. At one point, Murphy choked up as he talked about the victims of the visiting families. Those victims were shown smiling out from poster-sized photos beside him as he spoke.
On Tuesday morning, the families had breakfast with Vice President Joe Biden at his residence and went on to meet with Connecticut senators and then in small groups with other senators key to the gun control debate.
When the families arrived, movement on the issue seemed unlikely, with 13 conservative senators pledging a filibuster and even Democratic support for a debate shaky. These parents had become increasingly vocal, holding press conferences and aggressively lobbying state legislators in Connecticut before the General Assembly approved new controls on guns.
But Washington, where the polarized gun debate has pitted the president against Republicans and some Democrats, was new, hostile territory.
Entering the Capitol Hill debate meant having to meet with politicians who have worked to defend gun rights. Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and John Isakson of Georgia, two of those who met with the families, have both received A ratings from the NRA.
It meant having to recite to less-familiar legislators the most harrowing aspects of their losses. It meant walking through gantlets of Washington-based reporters who were less likely to keep a respectful distance than those they've encountered more regularly in their home state.
At one point, the families seemed unprepared when they arrived at Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal's office on Tuesday and had to walk within inches of a row of reporters jostling for their attention, cameras zooming in on their faces. Some looked away, others turned their expressions to stone. Barden, father of the gap-toothed 7-year-old victim Daniel, was the only one to offer a soft hello in response to the shouts.
It's also meant that these families have opened themselves up to a sort of criticism that is possibly more hurtful than what they've heard from legislators at home — that they are being taken advantage of in a game of party politics that has little to do with 20 dead first-graders.
Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, for instance, openly questioned whether the families had been duped into becoming political pawns.
"See, I think it's so unfair of the administration to hurt these families, to make them think this has something to do with them when, in fact, it doesn't," Inhofe said in the Huffington Post.
Inhofe added that they believe gun control is now a personal issue "because they've been told that by the president."
The families, meanwhile, insist that they are doing no one's political bidding. Despite the Democratically aligned overtones from the visit — the Obama arrival, Biden breakfast and the support of Democrats Blumenthal and Murphy — family members said they were bringing a nonpartisan perspective to the debate.
"We're ordinary people. We're not political," Bill Sherlach, husband of Mary Sherlach, the school psychologist who died at Sandy Hook, told reporters Tuesday. "We bring a face to this tragedy. We bring a very unique perspective. People should listen to us."
The new, more public phase of their campaign also has them facing longer odds than they faced in Connecticut.
Although the Senate has scheduled an initial vote for Thursday, when the families plan to return to Connecticut, the vote is merely the official opening to the debate. Legislation itself is far from being considered in final form.
Among senators there's little consensus on some of the issues that these grieving families have championed, such as efforts to reduce gun trafficking and limits on the bullet capacity of ammunition magazines.
Both Hockley and Blumenthal said that the families were aware of what lies ahead.
"This is my life now," Hockley said when asked if she had the stamina for a long marathon. "This is my life going forward."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun