By Kevin Coughlin
Twenty-six cyclists arrived in Morristown cold and tired on Saturday, after 115 miles of soggy pedaling from Newtown, CT.
“I’m not going to lie. Today was a really rough day on the bike,” said Team 26 leader Monte Frank, his feet still numb. “The word of the day today, I think, is grit.”
His group is en route to Washington DC for the fourth time since the December 2012 massacre of 26 children and staff members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
The purpose of the annual ride remains the same: Lobby for a federal law mandating background checks for all gun purchases, and close loopholes that make it too easy for guns to land in the wrong hands.
For that, a whole lot more grit is required, Frank conceded.
Although he said 89 percent of Americans — and a majority of gun owners– support universal background checks, “Congress has done nothing.”
Since Team 26 first passed through Morristown on a crisp late-winter morning in 2013, some 90,000 people have died from firearms in the U.S., he said. There have been at least 890 mass shootings, by his count.
More than 300 Americans will be shot dead over the four days it will take the bicyclists to reach the capital, Frank estimated.
“Is that appropriate for a civilized nation like the United States of America?” he asked a roomful of supporters who braved the damp, gloomy chill to cheer the cyclists as they rolled up South Street to town hall.
Clad in matching green bike jerseys, the weary athletes stood stoically through a series of speeches in the council chamber.
Event organizer Rebecca Feldman, a former councilwoman, remembered when Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot.
“And I came into this room every other Tuesday night wondering if we were all going home. And that’s just not how any of us should live,” Feldman said.
The Rev. Alison Miller of the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, recounted a shooting at a Unitarian gathering in Knoxville, TN.
“I don’t want to live in a place where houses of worship, where community centers, need to check everyone for guns on the way in,” said Miller.
The minister favors stricter national gun laws so “finally, we will no longer have to hold services for the loss of children in schools, for the loss of so many souls gone way too soon.”
Frank, whose daughter’s 3rd grade teacher died in the Newtown shooting, said he sees glimmers of hope. Gun laws are an issue in this year’s presidential campaign. And post-Sandy Hook protests–dismissed as the “Connecticut Effect” by the gun lobby–have mushroomed into a grass-roots movement.
He vowed to keep cycling to Washington “as long as I can, and as long as it takes” to budge lawmakers.
‘NOT ABOUT HUNTING’
Morristown “dodged a bullet” last summer, thanks to an alert security guard, Mayor Tim Dougherty reminded listeners.
The guard at Headquarters Plaza grew suspicious about a Peapack man who, it turned out, was toting two semi-automatic Glock pistols, hollow-point bullets, a fake badge and handcuffs near a cinema, daycare center and offices.
Dougherty said he will keep pressing for a state law mandating psychological evaluations for anyone caught with firearms — even licensed firearms–in a public space.
“It just makes common sense, right?” the Mayor said of an evaluation. “Well, they didn’t do that. And we screamed and hollered. Then they did it.”
Saturday’s welcome included an a cappella performance of The Greatest Love of All by Jessica Moffett Lee of Calvary Baptist Church, and a few words from Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
“I don’t understand why we have to have military-style assault weapons,” the Senator said, prior to the cyclists’ arrival.
“This isn’t about hunting. Because if you have to hunt with a magazine that shoots off a hundred rounds, believe me, that’s not hunting. This is about saving lives.”
However, no firearms legislation is pending in the Senate, he said. A bipartisan bill to extend background checks to gun shows and internet sales was killed by a Republican filibuster in 2013.
Other officials in the audience included Councilmen Michael Elms and Robert Iannaccone; the local Democratic and Republican chairpersons, Mary Dougherty and Frank Vitolo; and Morris Democratic Chairman Chip Robinson.
Leslie Moran, representing the Morris County chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, praised New Jersey’s tough gun laws.
But such measures count for little if people easily can obtain guns in Vermont, South Carolina, Georgia and elsewhere, and sneak them here, said Frank, asserting that federal penalties for trafficking firearms across state lines are less than for trafficking tainted milk.
Team 26 also is soliciting signatures for a MoveOn.org petition to ban weapons on college campuses.
Area cyclists were invited to accompany the riders Sunday morning on the next leg of their journey. They were scheduled to depart from the Hyatt, where a dinner was held on Saturday night to benefit Mary’s Fund, named for Sandy Hook victim Mary Sherlach, a school psychologist.
Sherlach’s daughter, South Jersey teacher Maura Sherlach Schwartz, came to greet the cyclists, even though she is due to give birth to her first child within a month.
“It greatly saddens me that my mother will never meet baby MacKenzie Joy, and that my daughter will never get to meet her grandmother,” said Schwartz.
Still, she said, “there will be a permanent piece of my mother that I will get to watch grow up, that I will get to spend each and every day with.
“And it is my hope that as time moves on, as she grows up, our country will evolve, and she will get to live in a much safer world because of people like you all.”
You can follow Team 26 at #RideOn.