Countering the NRA’s powerful lobbying machine won’t be easy. But they seem compelled to try.
“Many of us feel that Newtown changed everything,” Councilwoman Rebecca Feldman said Thursday at the initial gathering of the Morristown Committee Against Gun Violence. “Like if that didn’t do it, what will?”
About 40 people came to the Morristown & Township Library to brainstorm about how to prod area legislators to support President Obama’s proposed gun control measures, in the aftermath of last month’s massacre of 26 children and teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.
For two hours, residents of Morristown and Morris Township debated how to crystallize their message, garner attention and get in the faces of lawmakers. They even kicked around snappier names for their fledgling group, which was pulled together with online tools from MoveOn.org. Similar meetings were convened across the country.
Participants in Morristown heard a recorded message from the mother of a victim of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, imploring them to press for a ban on assault weapons and more stringent background checks for gun purchasers.
POLICE CHIEF: LEARN TO FLEE
Weapons bans won’t be enough, however. Not according to Morristown Police Chief Pete Demnitz, who has been studying mass shootings since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado.
People must hone their survival skills, he told the group. That means knowing all the exits, sizing up the threat, and considering your options.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, it should be: Flee,” said the police chief.
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He estimated that 40 percent of town residents own licensed guns. Yet he was incredulous that gun owners–unlike motorists–are not required to take any training or tests. They simply must pass a background check.
The Chief endorses assigning “resource officers” to schools, praising an officer he assigned to Morristown High School in September as someone students trust. But he acknowledged it’s costly to staff every school with police.
President Obama’s proposals include incentives for schools to hire such officers, along with requests for Congress to fund programs for training school officials to respond to active shootings, and to prepare emergency response plans at schools.
Survival training for kids should become a priority of the local committee, said Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. of Morristown’s Bethel A.M.E. Church.
“In inner cities, kids know what to do when they hear shots ringing,” the minister said. “In communities like this, you don’t expect it, you don’t think about it.”
MOM: ‘LIKE THE HOLOCAUST’
Nancy Bangiola, president of the Morris School District board and the library board, agreed to help with future organizing efforts. She was acting both as a concerned mom, and a school board member, she said.
“I can’t not be involved. I have a sense of how to mobilize people, and a sense that people want to make a statement and effect change,” Nancy said. She added that she knows every principal and teacher in the district, “and I know the lengths they would go to to protect children in their care. We just need to bring some rational voices to this, and good things will happen.”
Strong emotions filled the room.
Morristown resident Art Klein, still shaken by Newtown, stood up and declared: “Every time this happens, I cry. I don’t want to cry anymore. I’ve had it.”
“It can never happen again. Like the Holocaust, enough is enough,” said Dorothy Ann Frank, a mother of two.
ORGANIZER: ‘KIDS ARE GETTING KILLED’
Newtown “felt like the last straw” to Pam Hasegawa, who co-organized the Morristown event with Rebecca Feldman.
“This isn’t going to get fixed by people moaning and groaning about the issues and all the parenthetical stuff. It’s about taking action to prevent more gun violence. It’s got to be a strong, mobilized, galvanized voice,” she said.
Over the years, Pam has lobbied for the rights of adopted to children to learn about their birth parents, pressed for more field trips for town school kids, and promoted sustainable farming in Asia and Africa.
Rebecca Feldman told the gathering that she hoped the movement would “build a network of thousands and thousands” of people swiftly, before the Newtown horror recedes from the public consciousness.
“This is really about political action. It’s all about votes. It’s totally grassroots,” she said
Rebecca knows something about that; she has pushed to get playgrounds built, deny raises to a prior mayor and pass a referendum for an anti-pay-to-play law. All of that seems secondary now, she said.
“When Newtown happened, I thought, what the hell have I been doing for 10 years? Kids are getting killed.”