Mark Barden is a professional musician. He is used to performing. But when he stood up in front of 300 people at U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis’ town hall meeting Tuesday evening, his hands were moist and his breath was short.
He introduced himself and his wife, Jackie, who stood next to him.
“Currently, we live in Newtown, Conn.,” he said. “On Dec. 14, our sweet little son, Daniel, was murdered in his classroom with 19 of his classmates and six of his teachers.”
The Bardens were visiting DeLand, and they came to Palm Coast for the town hall meeting.
The cafeteria of Flagler Palm Coast High School released a collective gasp. Some audience members cast their eyes to their feet; others gazed at the couple, their expressions stunned, sorrowful or inquisitive. It was about an hour into the meeting, attended largely by members of the Flagler County Tea Party, and much of the evening’s conversation had centered on gun control. Few supported stronger regulations.
“For us,” Barden continued, “the issue of gun violence is not academic or political. It’s deeply personal. As Congress considers stronger gun laws, we just encourage you to keep an open heart.”
Some citizens said they felt the government was trying to take away their guns in effort to seize power. Others asked that DeSantis protect their right to own guns.
“Any improvement to our gun laws shouldn’t be attacked as a part of some plot to take away guns,” Barden said. “Even those of us who have lost the most are not suggesting you take away guns.”
He directed his attention to DeSantis, asking him what changes to gun laws he would support.
DeSantis expressed condolences to the family and told them he and other representatives would be looking at “whatever comes down the pike.”
“I think that something should be done, but in terms of how you do that, I have not been given the right answers for that,” DeSantis said. “We’re going to look at this stuff.”
DeSantis said he would support a law that kept guns out of the hands of those with a history of mental health issues, and that Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, would qualify. He also mentioned examining pervasive violence in video games, but said he didn’t think it would be appropriate for government to regulate that.
DeSantis said he would oppose a law that would limit the magazine capacity of semiautomatic weapons.
After the meeting, Barden said he felt that DeSantis had skirted the question, though he hoped his message was heard. His son’s death thrust him onto a public platform. He didn’t ask for it, but he sees using it as an honor to his youngest son.
“Even those of us who have made the ultimate sacrifice don’t want to get rid of all guns,” Barden said. “But I support stricter regulations. Some of Daniel’s classmates fled the classroom as Lanza changed magazines, and I don’t see why you need more than 30 rounds in a magazine unless you’re going to kill a lot of people.”
Barden thinks often of the last hours he spent with Daniel, a 7-year-old known for his compassion.
The day he died, Daniel rose earlier than usual. His older siblings left for school earlier than he did, but that day, he wanted to kiss them goodbye. After they left, Daniel’s father told him to go to sleep until it was time for him to go to school, but Daniel refused.
“That means we have more time to cuddle,” he said They watched the sunrise together. Daniel said it was pretty, so his father took a picture of that morning — their last morning.He still has it.
Mark Barden held his son’s hand as they walked to the bus stop. He was shot and killed several hours later.
Just more than two months later, the Bardens hope to approach life the same way Daniel did. Whenever he saw someone alone, he would ask to join.
Days before he died, he poured himself a few sips of milk from a nearly empty carton. His father asked him why.
“You always have to leave something for the next person,” Daniel said.
Daniel’s cousin started a Facebook page, “What Would Daniel Do?” in effort to spread Daniel’s philosophy to the world.
To the Bardens, the nation needs something more than new gun laws — something embodied in Daniel’s memory.
“There’s a fundamental cultural change that needs to happen,” Mark Barden said. “We’re a violent culture, and some basic values of kindness — Daniel’s kindness — is needed in our world.”