By Louise Witt
on Saturday, after they declined an invitation to participate in a town hall in Morristown on stricter gun laws.
“Take note of who is not here,” Bella Bhimani, a sophomore at West Morris Mendham High School, told the audience of almost 300 students, parents and residents crowded into the auditorium at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School.
“Because, if our safety was their priority, they would be here right now.”
Two weeks after 13,000 gathered in Morristown to demand stricter gun laws, Morris County high school students organized a Town Hall For Our Lives for candidates running in the 11th District to address gun violence. Six candidates accepted the teenagers’ invitation.
Frelinghuysen, who decided not to seek a 13th term earlier this year, and state Assemblyman Jay Webber, a Republican, bowed out, claiming prior engagements. Antony Ghee, a Republican, didn’t respond to the students.
Slideshow photos by Jeff Sovelove:
After hundreds of thousands of teenagers, children and adults participated in March For Our Lives marches around the country and the world, David Hogg, a student activist, called on teenagers to organize town halls with their representatives on April 7.
On Valentine’s Day, a gunman with an AR-15 killed 14 students and three adults at Hogg’s school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Alexandra Stephens, a 16-year-old at Morristown High School, said she was disappointed Frelinghuysen and Webber didn’t accept the students’ offer. Webber’s chief of staff sent her an email, offering a meeting with the assemblyman in his Parsippany office later this month.
“I felt like he misunderstood the point,” Stephens said. “We want to get out the information to the public, so that the public can make informed decisions.”
Following Hogg’s tweeted directive on the town halls, the public wasn’t allowed to ask questions during the two-hour event.
Seven area high school students were panelists: Brianna Arends, a senior from Randolph High School; Bhimani; Isabella Bosrock, a senior at West Morris Mendham High School; Natalie Gemici, a junior at Kent Place High School; Meghana Maddali, a sophmore at Morris Knolls High School; Evie Mason, a sophomore at Chatham High School and Carina Pacheco, a junior at Academy of Saint Elizabeth.
Caitlyn Dempsey, a Randolph High School student, was the moderator.
March For Our Lives partnered with the Town Hall Project to set up the town halls across the country. Local students co-sponsored the event with NJ 11th For Change, a grassroots activist group.
Two Republicans — Martin Hewitt and Patrick S. Allocco, both of Morris Township, and four Democrats — Mitchell Cobert of Morristown, Tamara Harris of West Orange, Mikie Sherrill of Upper Montclair and Mark Washburne of Mendham, participated in the event.
(Sherrill, who already won endorsements from former Vice President Joe Biden and state Democratic leaders, said she will move later this month to another home in Montclair, so she will reside within the district’s boundaries.)
‘RIP THEIR FINGERS OFF THE CHOKEHOLD’
Though two of the candidates were Republicans, they distanced themselves from many GOP- and National Rifle Association positions.
All supported tougher gun regulations, stronger background checks, elimination of loopholes, bans on assault-style weapons, research on gun violence, more funding for social services and the need to confront special interests’ involvement in campaigns, especially the NRA’s efforts. All of the candidates said they didn’t take NRA donations and wouldn’t accept any.
“For me, to defeat the NRA and to literally rip their fingers off the chokehold they have on our country and our congress,” Harris said, “it’s going to take money and it’s going to take a movement.”
Hewitt said he didn’t consider NRA members “monsters,” but said the organization’s leaders were “the monsters.”
He said there is a “big difference between the Second Amendment and a terrorist organization trying to manipulate us. So, we all have to stand tall and make sure we work against the special interests. The largest and most damaging one, and most damning one, is the NRA.”
Sherrill agreed not all NRA members are monsters. Her father is a member, although he told her he would give that up.
“We have to recognize that NRA members may not be bad actors, the organization itself is an incredibly bad actor,” she said.
“What we need to acknowledge is that the NRA is simply a gun manufacturer lobby. They’re not a constitutional lobby, they’re not a sportsmen’s lobby, or a hunting lobby. They’re lobbyists for gun manufacturers. And their agenda is to make money for gun manufacturers.”
The candidates agreed assault weapons designed for military use should be banned.
Cobert, a former Assistant Attorney General in New York, went further, saying he advocated confiscating assault weapons in buy-back programs.
Sherrill, a veteran and former federal prosecutor, said she was trained to use M-16s and they shouldn’t be sold at sporting goods stores.
“Make no mistake they are weapons of war,” she said. “These weapons were designed to kill as many people as possible in wars like Vietnam and Iraq, and they have no place on the streets in New Jersey.”
‘A NEED TO BALANCE’ RIGHTS
Allocco, seeking to separate himself from his opponents, said he supported the right to own guns for protection. After he was kidnapped in Angola, he said he went through background checks and took gun safety courses in order to purchase a handgun.
“There’s a need to balance the right to protection and the Second Amendment,” he said.
The other candidates agreed citizens like Allocco have a right to own a gun for their protection — but not an absolute right.
Sherrill said the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 was the wrong interpretation of the Second Amendment, since it ignored the provision for a “well-regulated militia.” The amendment doesn’t exist in a constitutional vacuum, she said.
“We have to be able to regulate our firearms and balance the Second Amendment along with keeping our citizens safe.”
The candidates also favored repealing the so-called Dickey amendment passed in 1996 as part of a spending bill, prohibiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using money to “advocate or promote gun control.” The NRA pushed for the amendment, after studies suggested having guns in homes increases the risk of homicide and suicide.
Washburne said his family has first-hand experience with the health risk of guns. His brother-in-law shot himself at home, after a drunk driving encounter with police. “Having a gun in the house makes it riskier for your family,” he said.
Harris said providing funding for gun violence research is her top priority.
“As an equity research analyst, I can tell you that you can not manage what we cannot measure. The NRA has been very effective in making sure we cannot manager the gun crisis and gun deaths in this country, because made sure we can’t measure it.”
Hewitt said he was heartened to see that the spending bill Congress passed last month included language for research on gun violence. However, Sherrill point out no funding was provided for the research.
The candidates supported making schools safer, but they rejected calls for installing metal detectors and the Trump administration’s proposal to arm teachers. Allocco favored armed guards and more mental health counselors.
“I would be sadden to think attending a school that is a fortress, a prison-like environment,” Allocco said. “That’s not what I want for her.”
Darcy Schleifstein of Randolph lost friends at in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre. She said Saturday’s discussion had been helpful, and was heartened the candidates didn’t advocate metal detectors in schools. “I’m glad that the politicians are on our side,” Schleifstein said.
Stephens wished Frelinghuysen had contributed to the discussion. She held up a type- written letter from the congressman, thanking her for her leadership on this issue.
“It wasn’t enough,” the student said.