On a cold, crisp late-winter Sunday morning, 26 cyclists from Newtown, CT, stopped in Morristown en route to Washington DC with their demand for universal background checks for all gun purchases.
It was the second straight year that the cyclists have made the long, frosty ride, and they vowed to keep making it until lawmakers close the loopholes they contend made it easy for a deranged 20-year-old to massacre 26 first-graders and educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.
“Congress has failed to put politics aside, and still is playing politics with an issue that affects all of us and affects our children,” said Team 26 ride leader Monte Frank. “The longer they continue to do it, the more people are going to die, and that’s just not acceptable.”
More than 30,000 Americans have become victims of gun violence since the Newtown massacre, he said.
“We should be able to walk down the street, go to work, or attend a movie, go to the mall, and buy our groceries without the fear of a gun ending our life,” said Maura Sherlach Schwartz, a Gloucester County music teacher whose mother, school psychologist Mary Sherlach, was shot dead trying to protect the first graders in Newtown.
“It’s very easy to fall prey to the grief, the frustration, the anger, asking those unanswerable questions like, ‘How did this happen? Why Sandy Hook? Why my mom? What could have been done to prevent this?'” Maura continued.
“But the simple reality is, it did happen. And now, we as a country need to learn from it. My mom would not want me to be sitting alone in a room, awash in sadness and grief. She would simply ask me, ‘Well, what can we do about it?'”
Maura traveled from South Jersey to show support for the cyclists, who set out from Newtown on Saturday with hopes of reaching Washington on Tuesday. They were greeted in Morristown, their only New Jersey stop, by Council President Rebecca Feldman, who organized the event with the state chapters of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and The Million Mom March.
The organizers said New Jersey’s gun laws are among the country’s strictest. But without universal background checks, bans on assault weapons and tighter regulation of gun show sales nationwide, too many weapons will continue falling into the hands of irresponsible owners, they said.
“Newtown could have been, or could be, any of our towns,” Rebecca said.
Mayor Tim Dougherty said the goal is not to confiscate guns from lawful owners, but to stem the tide of gun violence.
“There is so much more we can do as legislators, in Washington, and they need to get off their a– and do something,” the Mayor said, to applause in front of town hall, where dozens gathered for a noontime event that included peace songs by seventh grade girls from the Bergen Arts and Science Charter School.
“This is about protecting lives,” said the Mayor, noting that he works in Newark where gun violence is a constant concern. Morris County authorities, meanwhile, continue to investigate a nonfatal shooting in Morristown last month. “So it’s real in every community… it’s all of our towns. There’s no divide on where gun violence can take place.”
Noting that America can land scientific probes on Mars, the Mayor said “smart” technologies to safeguard guns should be within reach. More than 90 percent of Americans support sensible gun laws, he contended.
“There is so much more we can do as a country to make it safer, we should do it,” the Mayor said.
The gathering included a trio of peaceful demonstrators wearing National Rifle Association badges and holding signs asserting that the husband slain during a Christmas season carjacking at the Short Hills Mall might be alive if New Jersey had more liberal handgun-carrying laws.
“Our laws are already too restrictive and we don’t need anymore,” said Darren Marquart, a painter from Sussex County who said he uses semi-automatic rifles for hunting. “If I miss a couple times, squirrels are hard to hit sometimes. It’s easier to shoot again.”
But hunting is not the issue, he said. “This is about self protection. It’s about protecting ourselves from our government and mostly, self-protection.”
“Our belief is we have a right to self-defense,” said another protester, who chose to identify himself only as Albert, a business owner and former emergency responder in Newark.
“We have plenty of laws against guns, and obviously, they’re not working so well. So maybe less laws would be a better option at this point,” said another demonstrator named Phil.