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19-year-old who lost brother in Sandy Hook shooting running for Connecticut state senate

J.T. Lewis was just 12 years old when his younger brother, Jesse Lewis, stood up to a gunman who had entered his first-grade classroom, before shooting and killing 20 innocent young children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Jesse screamed for his classmates to run while the gunman reloaded his weapon, standing beside his teacher the whole time. 

Jesse's heroic actions on December 14, 2012 helped saved nine of his classmates before he lost his own life, an act of bravery J.T. says has since inspired him to run to try and unseat a three-term incumbent in the Connecticut State Senate.

"I believe that inside every single one of us is that same sense of innate courage that we never knew we had to do something extraordinary," Lewis, who is running as a Republican, said in a campaign video. "And to honor Jesse, I've decided to be courageous enough to run for state Senate in my home state of Connecticut."  

The now 19-year-old launched his candidacy on social media on Tuesday, saying his run against the GOP incumbent Tony Hwang of Connecticut's 28th state senate district is a personal one. In his campaign launch video, Lewis recalled making a phone call to Hwang's office in the wake of the mass shooting, imploring his senator to prevent future tragedies from happening. That call, he said, was never returned. 

"The little boy who just wanted someone to hear his mom's calls for help has grown up," said Lewis. "I'm entering the fray because it is only with real leadership that Connecticut will see change that it is so desperate for."

Lewis told CBS News that his personal connection to the country's gun issues and being a young Republican makes him "uniquely positioned to bring both sides of the isle together."

"We all, Republicans and Democrats, want to see kids safe at school. We're just coming at it from different angles," said Lewis. He said that if elected, he has a three-pronged approach to tackling the issue of school violence, addressing "mental health, gun legislation, and securing schools."  

Lewis, a student at the University of Connecticut, has taken his advocacy for gun safety to the White House and was invited to participate in a round-table discussion with President Trump last December. Lewis has praised the Trump administration for taking more proactive steps to preventing mass shooting events than his predecessors. 

JT Lewis, brother of Sandy Hook victim Jesse Lewis, speaks to President Donald Trump during a roundtable discussion on the Federal Commission on School Safety report, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018, in Washington. Evan Vucci / AP

"We've met with governors; we've met with senators.  We met with the previous administration — the President and the Secretary of Education. And everyone wanted to focus on a certain issue...And I won't say it, but they didn't want to focus on school safety, which is the most important thing," Lewis told Mr. Trump at the White House last year. 

"As I learn going back to school in Newtown — Sandy Hook — the schools become infinitely safer the day after the shooting.  They implement all of this stuff, and you feel completely safe in this school that just had a shooting yesterday. So this needs to get into the schools before something like that happens," Lewis said, advocating for enhanced security measures in schools. 

The Trump White House has endorsed some efforts to curb gun violence, including The Fix NICS Act, which strengthens background checks for firearm purchases, as well as the STOP School Violence Act, which provides grants to schools to improve safety.

Hwang, who's served in the state senate since 2014, has supported other efforts to address school safety in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. In 2016, he introduced legislation in Connecticut to increase criminal penalties if a threat involves a preschool, K-12 school or an institution of higher education.

Asked about his challenge in 2020, Hwang told CBS News: "I appreciate and respect anyone's desire to run for public office. I love representing the people of the 28th District. My experience, record of accomplishments and engaged representation of our communities speaks for itself."

He added, "I do my best every day to work for and represent all of the residents of the 28th District. I am honored and privileged to serve as the State Senator and will continue to do all I can to be a voice our constituents can be proud of."

Lewis, meanwhile, vowed that he would do his best to bridge a divided political world," should he win. He will face Hwang in the August primary in 2020.

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