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'We will not be silent': Families of victims vow to bring 'Newtown effect' to gun-control debate

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WASHINGTON - Miranda Pacchiana, center, of Newtown, Conn., holds a candle at the end of a National Vigil for Victims of Gun Violence just prior to the first anniversary marking the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting at Washington National Cathedral on December 12, 2013 in Washington, DC.

WASHINGTON — Families and friends of the 26 people killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School gathered Thursday in the nation's capital to honor their loved ones through a solemn vigil and volunteer work nearly one year after the Newtown massacre.

Relatives of other gun violence victims from cities across the country joined the Connecticut group on a two-day trip to Washington, D.C., to highlight the annual deaths of tens of thousands of people by firearms.

Their visit was capped by a vigil at the National Cathedral to remember victims of gun violence nationwide. Before the service began, the cathedral's bell rang for three minutes to represent the lives claimed by firearms every year. More than 700 well-wishers, including family of those slain at Sandy Hook on Dec. 14, 2012, filled the cathedral, with many wearing green ribbons to symbolize the school.

Listen to Carlos Soto, brother of Sandy Hook Elementary School teacher Victoria Soto, and other people who've had family killed or injured in gun violence talk about their activism.

"We gather today to remember and to honor and to commit -- commit ourselves to acts of justice and mercy to work toward a world where there are no more school shootings," said the Rev. Mel Kawakami, senior minister of Newtown United Methodist Church. "We gather to work for a peaceful nation. We gather to say, ‘no more.’"

The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the cathedral, said: "The gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby."

"I believe that the forces of love are finally greater and stronger than the forces of hatred. For people of faith, gun violence is not a morally ambiguous issue."

Nearly 11,100 gun homicides were recorded in 2010, while some 19,400 people committed suicide using firearms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Matt Mcclain / AP

People attend a National Vigil for Victims of Gun Violence just prior to the first anniversary marking the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting at the National Cathedral on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, in Washington.

"Somewhere in our country someone is being torn down by the bullets of a gun," said Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, head rabbi of the Congregation Chaverim in Tucson, Ariz., who asked God to "unplug our ears so we can hear this violence, so that we may stand with our neighbors, our friends, our sacred strangers and add our voices to theirs as we say, 'we will not be silent.'"

Many families paid tribute to their loved ones killed by firearms, such as Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex, 27, was killed in the July 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo.

"I will always remember the pride I felt in being known to one and all as Alex's dad," said Sullivan, a retired union activist who has dedicated his post-work years to push gun control. "I will remember."

Gilles Rousseau, whose daughter Lauren was killed while working as a substitute teacher at Sandy Hook, sighed a few times as he recalled their "unimaginable loss."

"We know that the grief we're all living is shared by all the families affected," he said. "We are here today with a common goal to remember our loved ones and seeking to make the world a better place."

Well-wishers held candles at the end of the vigil, with the Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., saying that in the flickering lights, "we see the faces of those we lost who were taken to soon ... and we commit ourselves to do all that we can to rid the world of such crimes."

John Brecher / NBC News

People board a bus in Newtown, Conn., headed for Washington and the National Vigil for Gun Violence Victims.

The vigil ended two days of outreach by the Newtown group and gun control activists from cities like Chicago, Hartford, Conn., and Atlanta. On Wednesday, they handed out letters to congressional representatives, urging them to re-visit failed gun-control legislation, and earlier Thursday volunteered with various programs, such as at an after-school center.

“It seemed like a very meaningful and elegant way to mark the year for us,” Terri Rousseau, 63, Lauren’s mother, said Wednesday.

Of the time since the shootings, she noted the journey had been difficult.

“I’m just grateful that we managed to weather it,” she said, at moments breaking down into tears. “We were very much debilitated by grief at some points, but we were still able to do our jobs and do some advocacy and spend time with friends and family, and that’s about the best you can hope for.”

Rousseau, like some other Newtown families, said she wouldn't be in the small Connecticut community on the anniversary of the shooting on Saturday. Town officials have asked media and outsiders to refrain from traveling there to give the townspeople privacy and avoid triggering traumatic memories of the nation’s second deadliest mass shooting.

Related: Complete coverage of the anniversary of the Newtown shooting

John Brecher / NBC News

September Chatfield, right, helps her son Tyrek Marquez, 12, put a glove on his left hand at the conclusion of a gun violence press conference at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Washington on Wednesday.

Two groups -- the Newtown Foundation, a charity focused on community healing in the wake of the shooting, and Newtown Action Alliance, which advocates for stronger gun laws -- organized the D.C. vigil in part to respect the town’s wishes, which also included honoring the Sandy Hook victims through acts of kindness. In tight-knit Newtown, most everyone knows someone who lost a loved one in the shooting.

“It’s been brutal,” Monte Frank, a Newtown lawyer on both groups' boards, said of the year since the attack by Adam Lanza, a troubled 20-year-old who took his own life at the school. “I certainly think about it every day.”

Frank and others in his community channeled their grief over the shooting into activism, starting the Newtown groups and setting their sights on federal gun control legislation. In April, however, the Senate failed to pass a bipartisan compromise bill that would have closed some existing loopholes that allow guns to be sold without background checks and would have created barriers for mentally ill individuals attempting to get firearms.

But the Newtown groups and families have continued to visit the Capitol in the months afterward to lobby for the legislation, though prospects for Congress to approve it in the near future are dim.

None of that dissuades Carlos Soto, the 16-year-old brother of slain Sandy Hook teacher, Vicki, whom he described as a second mom. The high school junior has traveled nine times to Washington, D.C., to push for gun control and works with several groups on that mission. He gives speeches on the issue, too.

“I want it (Sandy Hook) to be seen as … the turning point in gun reform because that’s what it truly is,” he said.

He said his family was honoring the legacy of his sister with their activism. But her death takes an ongoing toll, he said, noting how hard it would be to spend another Christmas without her.

“I don’t think anyone's ever OK after something like this,” he said. “We all just learn to live the new life that we live and learn to cope with what happened.”

John Brecher / NBC News

Terri Rousseau, right, mother of Lauren Rousseau, a teacher killed during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, holds her portrait along with Joyce Rousseau, Lauren's stepmother.

Soto spoke as he rode the bus from Connecticut with fellow activists whom he said were like a new family for him in the shooting’s aftermath. Later Wednesday, at a news conference in D.C., about 20 people from cities nationwide held up photos of relatives killed in gun violence to share their stories of loss. It is part of a strategy by the Newtown groups to form an alliance between urban and suburban communities impacted by gun violence.

“We're building what we calling the ‘Newtown effect,’” Frank said. By developing a broad coalition they have been able to “amplify our collective voices” in the gun debate and through it they think that “we can change some minds” on the issue, he said.

September Chatfield, whose son Tyrek Marquez was left partially paralyzed on his left side after being shot in the head as a 7-year-old at a parade in 2008 in Hartford, Conn., supports the coalition building effort.

Her family has struggled for years with Tyrek’s paralysis and the ongoing fallout from his shooting. Now 12, he walks with a limp but dreams to one day regain enough use of his left side so, he said, he can “shoot a basketball.”

Chatfield said she felt a "sense of hope" with the Newtown groups.

“I feel like I am a part of their community,” said Chatfield, 35. “I feel like they're doing the best that they can to ensure that change will be done -- and I’m willing to walk with them.”

John Brecher / NBC News

Sarah Clements, daughter of Sandy Hook Elementary School teacher Abbey Clements and Carlos Soto, brother of teacher Victoria Soto, who was killed during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, ride a bus to Washington on Wednesday. The group will attend the National Vigil for Gun Violence Victims.