When Mark Barden walked his 7-year-old son Dan to the school bus Dec. 14, it would be the last time he saw his child alive. Later that day at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Dan was among the 20 first-graders who were fatally shot in one of the nation’s most gruesome school massacres.
Thursday marked the three-month anniversary of the shooting that has sparked a nationwide debate about gun safety. And Barden and his wife, Jackie, along with other parents who lost children that day, came to San Francisco to launch an initiative that aims to stop gun violence and improve mental health research through technological innovation.
The parents were joined by tech industry leaders and city officials to announce the Sandy Hook Promise Innovation Initiative.
Locally and statewide, the incident in Newtown, Conn., has led to legislative actions, but angel investor Ron Conway said the tech initiative specifically hopes to tap the creative minds in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley to help curb gun violence.
“We agree that legislative efforts are important, and we are pursuing that,” Conway said, “but today is all about innovation.”
The announcement was the start of an all-day event to discuss ways tech companies can develop ideas around gun and school safety and mental health research. Projects could be funded by a group of about 30 investors that Conway has assembled.
The impetus for the initiative started on the evening of the shooting, Conway said, when he hosted a holiday party with dozens of tech heavyweights as well as Mayor Ed Lee, former Mayor Willie Brown, and Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly. Giffords is the former Arizona congresswoman who survived a shooting rampage in 2011.
The need for innovative ideas — such as using technology to make guns safer and background checks better — was driven home throughout Thursday’s event by harrowing tales related to the school shooting.
Jenn Hensel and Jeremy Richman lost their only child, daughter Avielle. Hensel said they are still “desperate to understand why someone would kill innocent children, why someone would kill my child.”
The couple, both of whom are scientists, have launched the Avielle Foundation. Its goal is to try to understand the underlying issues that lead to violent behavior. Hensel and Richman said the tech initiative might be able to make studies of what they call “brain health” affordable.
Nicole Hockley, who lost her son Dylan in the shooting and admitted she is still in shock, said she wants to honor her son’s life by working to prevent a similar tragedy in the future.
Also at Thursday’s event were four Bay Area families that had all lost children to gun violence.
“The look of pain in their eyes has become all too familiar to me,” Hockley said of meeting the local families. “It is the same pain that I see in the families that also lost loved ones on 12/14, and the same pain I see every time I now look in the mirror.”
Barden said his own son would have backed the tech-focused approach.
“He would look into his heart and try to fix things,” Barden said of his son’s compassionate nature. “And I can’t tell you how deeply it touches us that you are looking into your hearts, taking your time and talents and devoting yourselves to fixing this.”