By Sarah Yamashita
For the sixth year, they stopped in Morristown on their way to Washington.
“Enough is enough,” Team 26 founder Monte Frank told a crowd outside town hall on Saturday.
He and his fellow cyclists had just pedaled 100 miles from Newtown, CT, where 20 children and six teachers were murdered in December 2012.
Team 26 rolled out of Morristown in the rain on Sunday morning, with a police escort, headed for the nation’s capital to plead with lawmakers—again—for common-sense gun laws.
The Morristown rally came one day after President Trump addressed the National Rifle Association, his biggest financial backer, pledging to defend members’ Second Amendment rights that he said are “under siege.”
Some in the audience said that event helped motivate their attendance.
“Considering what happened yesterday, when the president and vice-president went down to support the NRA, I’m just hoping that more people become aware of gun safety and get some things passed that will save lives,” said Adele Black, a retired educator from Rockaway.
Team 26 leaves rainy Morristown, May 6, 2018. Slideshow photos by Jeff Sovelove:
She also marched in the St. Patrick’s Parade with Moms Demand Action, organizers of the rally. “It just really upsets me what’s happening in these schools and how the youth of today have to be afraid to go to school, so I wanted to do something instead of just saying I’m sorry.”
Others said activism has given them glimmers of hope that Congress eventually will hear them.
“Ever since the shooting at Sandy Hook, there was a big change and I felt really scared then. And then with Parkland, I finally have the opportunity as a high school student to get involved and it feels really great,” said Alexandra “Lexie” Stephens, a Morristown High School junior who helped organize the Morristown March for Our Lives in March.
She referred to the Valentine’s Day shooting of 17 students and staff members at a high school in Parkland, FL.
“Around the Trump election, my mom and I both got involved with NJ 11th For Change, so we’ve done a few things but this is the first time I’ve actually put myself out there,” said Stephens, who spoke before heading to her junior prom.
Benjamin Douglas, a Bloomfield High School junior riding with Team 26 for the second year, said the cyclists have shared countless stories from survivors of gun violence with public officials.
“We ride as messengers,” he said.
“How many children have to die before our representatives, our senators, and our president create comprehensive gun legislation?” said Randolph High School senior Caitlyn Dempsey.
Mayor Tim Dougherty saw irony in the NRA convention. “Well, all those people had to check their weapons before they got to their conference, but we’re allowing people with assault weapons into our schools and other places to commit mass murder,” said the Democratic mayor.
“There is no way that I believe that the majority of this country believes that an 18-year-old can walk into a gun shop and buy a weapon that can shoot 30 rounds in a few seconds. It just doesn’t make any sense,” Dougherty said.
State Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-16th Dist.), co-sponsor of a measure to raise New Jersey’s legal age for buying rifles and shotguns to 21, told the crowd: “As sad as I feel as we talk about this and that you’re riding here year after year, I feel optimistic because change is coming.”
The state has some of the nation’s strongest gun laws, and Zwicker said the Legislature is working to strengthen them further.
“We’re going to fund Rutgers University to start to study violence so that if Congress doesn’t research, we are going to research,” Zwicker said. “If Congress won’t act, then we are going to change Congress.”
The Rev. Cynthia Black, rector of Morristown’s Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, said 398 people have been killed and 1,684 have been injured in mass shootings since she welcomed Team 26 a year ago. But gun violence is more than a statistic for her.
She said her brother-in-law, who works at the Venetian Casino in Las Vegas, watched his coworker shoot his boss and his boss’s boss on a company picnic three weeks ago.
“Now, this statistic does not make it to the mass shooting story. But for someone whose life has already been scarred by violence, my brother-in-law and all of the casino workers and their families have been traumatized by this event,” Black said.
Yet despite the horrors of Sandy Hook and Parkland FL, she said, she remains hopeful.
“As a Christian, I live in hope…it’s all of us not letting up, not giving up, not going away,” she said.
Team 26 wants Congress to enact laws making it easier to remove weapons from antagonists in domestic violence cases. Tiffany Starr, whose father was killed defending the family against her sister’s abusive ex-boyfriend, said she was heartened by rallies like this one.
“In the 23 years since my dad was killed, I’ve seen a lot come in and out of the news, I’ve seen a lot of talk about gun violence. But in the last few months, I’ve seen a conversation shift that does give me hope,” Starr said.
Frank, who is running for lieutenant governor in Connecticut, said Team 26 was carrying a petition with 250,000 signatures seeking a ban on AR-15 assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines. He said 97 percent of Americans support background checks for all weapon sales.
“Dr. Martin Luther King, in his last speech before he became a victim of gun violence, said, ‘Only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars,’ Frank told several dozen supporters.
“Well, it’s dark, people. Thirty-three thousand gun deaths a year, 91 gun deaths a day. In the time that it takes us to ride from Newtown to D.C., 364 people will lose their lives in this country because of guns… and yet Congress does nothing.
“Mired in gridlock and partisan bickering. Yes it’s dark, it’s pitch black. But because… of all of you, we’re beginning to see the stars. Because of the students rising up, the stars are shining even brighter.”
Sarah Yamashita is a senior at the Morristown-Beard School.