In the wake of recent tragedies, the debate over gun safety has reached a fever pitch. Is there a realistic solution in sight?
It’s a debate that’s raged for decades, periodically reignited by a scene played out time and time again across the United States. Yet as horrific as each instance has been—from Aurora, Colo., to Blacksburg, Va.—the day last December that shattered the stillness of a typical New England town has changed, and set, the tone.
There are few topics quite like it. On one side, it’s simply referred to as common sense, a no-brainer when it comes to protecting citizens and changing a culture of violence that’s permeated for too long. But on the other side, to those who consider it a threat against their freedoms, a stripping of the inalienable rights in which this country was founded, calling it “common sense” is a veiled insult.
No matter the view, all agree this time is different. The conversation has shifted and change is coming. For those in favor of gun control, that means not backing down on closing up loopholes that help arm criminals and the mentally ill. (For instance, someone on the Terrorist Watchlist can currently purchase a firearm—legally—in New Jersey.) For those on the opposing side, it means preparing for battle: calling in reinforcements and descending upon the State House in Trenton to make sure their voice is heard.
But it all comes down to two important questions. Between the passion and the vitriol, it’s possible we’ve reached the tipping point—a sociological term coined in ’60s to describe the cause—the final straw—of shifting paradigms. But where will we go from the tipping point?
New Jersey appears ready to be a leader in the national debate, passing a 22-bill package just a few weeks ago through the Assembly that supporters believe is all-encompassing, enough to enhance gun safety and make it harder for weapons to fall into the wrong hands. But that only leads to the second question: Will gun control alone ever be enough?
In the Government
On that Dec. 14 morning, the first reaction by many hearing the news coming out of Newtown, Conn., was as a parent. It was no different for Lou Greenwald (D-Burlington, Camden), the New Jersey Assembly Majority Leader and father of three whose name is attached to two of those bills now being reviewed by the Senate—one requiring ammunition sales and transfers be conducted as face-to-face transactions, another limiting magazine size from 15 to 10.
“As a father, my heart broke for the families,” Greenwald says of the 20 families who lost their 6- and 7-year-old children, and of the six staff members who died trying to protect them. “It was a truly senseless tragedy, one that did not need to happen.”
But he, like other members of the Legislature, assures it’s not simply a knee-jerk reaction but one that was long-needed to close dangerous gaps in the system. For example, while it’s true that New Jersey already has among the strictest gun laws in the nation (i.e. assault-style weapons are permanently banned here, to the chagrin of gun rights advocates, as opposed to the now-defunct federal ban), the state allows ammunition to be purchased online without proper credentials and it’s among the worst performing in ensuring key medical records, such as involuntary commitments, are provided to the background check system.
Greenwald stresses, though, that what’s in place now is working. According to a recent study, using data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), New Jersey was ranked No. 3 in terms of states with the strictest gun laws and the lowest amount of gun fatalities. The Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence and the Legal Center to Prevent Gun Violence also ranks it second behind California in having the strictest laws.
“I think this is a testament to the fact that our gun laws are working to prevent gun violence,” Greenwald says.
These new proposed laws would also ban .50 caliber weapons and possession of body armor-penetrating ammunition, require proof of firearms safety training to purchase a handgun, and require background checks for private sales.
The package—which has moved faster than similar federal proposals, including a universal background check—would create a task force to explore school safety, authorize firearms seizure when a mental health professional determines a patient poses a threat to his or herself or others, and require submission of certain mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. “Our effort is comprehensive,” Greenwald says, “not simply banning high-capacity magazines and armor-piercing bullets, but also addressing New Jersey’s mental health crisis, improving school safety, combating illegal gun trafficking, increasing penalties for criminals, and beginning a tough conversation about a culture that too often glorifies senseless violence.”
So, this is only the beginning. After all, the Senate has already pointed out areas of the Assembly bills that it may want to rework, such as requiring face-to-face transactions for ammunition to help prevent stockpiling, which Sen. President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) says would cost his constituents more money. Many of them are gun enthusiasts and sportsmen, he says, so that’s a major inconvenience.
Other than that, Sweeney has said little about what the Senate might do with the bills, but approvals, in some form, are expected sometime in April or May.
“Various proposals have been made and my staff and I are currently reviewing them. These are complex issues that deserve a fair and thorough discussion,” Sweeney says, urging caution and care. “If we are truly going to do something about gun violence in this country, we have to look at the root causes.”
Also, when a (possibly) revised package is passed by the Senate in the upcoming weeks, will Gov. Chris Christie even sign the bills? The Republican governor, while questioning how it’s possible that the Assembly passed these bills so quickly, has refrained from making a solid stance in the debate until he receives a report from his NJ Safe Task Force—a group studying gun control, violence, addiction, mental health and school safety led by former Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero and former Attorney General John Degnan. The panel includes members with law and justice backgrounds, as well as mental health experts, with Christie aiming to ensure any plan to curb violence doesn’t concentrate on guns alone.
That report, which drew hundreds of gun rights advocates to a series of hearings held across the state, is expected any day now.
And it’s certainly only the beginning for the opposition, made of law-abiding gun owners who feel this is indeed an automated response from the legislature that deserves more time for fair input. Besides, they ask, what criminal abides by the law?
“New Jersey politicians have repeatedly reacted to the complete ineffectiveness of previous laws by passing even more laws, which have also been ineffective because criminals ignore them,” says Scott L. Bach, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Rifle & Pistol Clubs, the state branch of the NRA.
He refers to the proposals as “feel-good laws” that will not impact school safety or mental health and will only make life more difficult for those who obtain guns through an already heavily regulated system. For instance, restrictions make it nearly impossible to obtain a permit to carry unless there’s an “urgent necessity” for protection, and guns cannot be transported in New Jersey unless the owner is on his or her way to a gun range/hunting grounds, or literally—in that moment—in the process of moving. That’s the law that caused Mount Laurel’s Brian Aitken to spend four months of a now-thrown out seven-year sentence in jail for having handguns he owned legally in Colorado in the trunk of his car in Burlington County in 2009—locked up and unloaded.
Every firearms purchaser in New Jersey already has to submit to background checks and disclosure of personal information, and further limits on magazine size and types of weapons will only limit a citizen’s ability to protect themselves, Bach says. And while his organization understands the reaction involved in these tragedies, they also believe lasting solutions go beyond the weapons. But when asked what compromises could possibly be made to appease all sides, Bach infers the point is moot. “Compromise would be unnecessary if politicians focused on meaningful solutions to school safety and flaws in the mental health system, rather than on banning hardware.”
You can ban guns, but you can’t ban evil, he says, adding the culture of violence is not due to access to guns; it revolves around decaying moral values that are reinforced by glorified, desensitizing violence.
His argument is the basis of the charge against the State House in Trenton, one that saw hundreds of protestors during a hearing for the Assembly bills in which multiple people were thrown out. But Bach says he expects the Senate will more carefully deliberate than the Assembly did thanks to those protests. Yet whatever comes out of the Senate, they are ready to take it on. The organization refers to this current waiting period as the “calm before the storm.”
On our Streets
According to Bach, current gun laws have done little to impact crime rates in New Jersey, and a look at statistics doesn’t show much of a change. There were 379 homicides in 2011, 71 percent of which involved guns, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report. From 2006 onward, the rate hovered at 68 percent, save for 2008 when it dropped to 63 percent (of 376 homicides).
Coincidentally, that year marked the beginning of an explosion in gun ownership in New Jersey that has been sustained ever since, Bach says, due presumably to political and economic uncertainty. Recent Smith and Wesson figures show national sales in the quarter ending this past January totaled $14.6 million. Compare that to $4.4 million the year prior.
But despite the increase in purchases, polls show New Jersey voters are in favor of more restrictions. In a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll, 76 percent of the state’s voters were in favor of greater restrictions in firearms and ammunition. A Quinnipiac University poll showed 50 percent of voters said they believe private gun ownership carries more risk than protection.
“Even among gun owners, it is understood that there needs to be a degree of responsibility,” says Nicola Bocour, project director for the Coalition for Peace Action’s Ceasefire New Jersey project—the state’s longest-running gun violence prevention organization. “It kind of is amazing how fast that degree goes out the window the minute you discuss legislation.”
She stresses there should be a reachable compromise, but the compromise is what’s currently being discussed. “If you want a handgun to protect yourself in your home and you pass a background check, you’re not seeing regulations imposing on that. If you want to hunt and use rifles for sport, you’re not seeing opposition to that.”
Bocour says her organization had been hard at work on many of these issues long before Newtown. In particular, their focus was on banning .50 caliber sniper rifles—a weapon she says could take out an airplane a mile away from the airport—as well as reducing magazine size, promoting a federal universal background check, and pushing for federal laws to decrease gun trafficking—a problem in New Jersey most recently evidenced by the forfeiture of a rocket launcher at a Trenton gun buyback program.
While understanding the sensitivity of gun owners, she says they shouldn’t simply say gun control is a violation of their second amendment rights. Even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, known to be conservative, ruled in 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller that the right is not unlimited, that reasonable “laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms” are permitted.
In our Schools
Newtown has been referred to as the 9/11 of the school community in terms of its societal impact, and with that many experts agree it would be irresponsible to not examine school safety along with the mental upbringing of youth in the aftermath.
Immediately following, there was an outpouring of reaction and support from local schools, assuring students and parents alike that while South Jersey schools are secure, everything would be examined from structural to emotional safety. As stated by Washington Township’s Superintendent Robert Goldschmidt before a board of education meeting just four days later: “The tragic events there bring home to all of us, as parents and educators, the worst of our fears, and the frustration of senseless loss of life. They lead us to ask ‘Why?’ when we might never know. But they also lead us to look at our own assumptions, behaviors and work to ask ‘How can we do better?’”
Washington Township, and all of the districts across the region, have taken the last four months as an opportunity to review policies and procedures, such as the ones in place thanks to a 2010 New Jersey mandate requiring schools to conduct a monthly fire drill in addition to one school security drill each month, which could be a lockdown, evacuation or active shooter drill. The state Department of Education also has plans to begin surprise security drills. Many schools, such as those in the Cherry Hill School District, chose to increase police presence not just temporarily but permanently. Periodic walk-throughs by the department are now part of the routine in Cherry Hill.
School drills have come a long way since 1999, when the massacre at Columbine brought home the fact that they need to go far behind preparing for fire, and the term “active shooter drill” wasn’t used as it is today.
At the time, Brian Betze was principal at Indian Mills Memorial School in Shamong. “Newtown took me right back to April 20 (1999, and Columbine),” says Betze, now superintendent of the Moorestown School District. “I can remember how that moved me that day. I go right back there when I hear these things happen, [and I wonder] what have we done to stop this as a society.”
At least in the school, he knows Moorestown is doing what it needs to—such as drills when classrooms are locked from the inside until the all-clear is given over the PA system following a police sweep—and students do take it seriously because they’re well aware of the risks they face simply by going to school. “It gives me peace of mind knowing we’re as prepared as possible,” Betze assures.
Still, the district did complete a recent security audit to see where things such as additional surveillance and locks might be beneficial, and they have plans to build upon an already strong relationship with the police department.
Positive relationships between the two entities are crucial, explains Medford Police Chief Richard Meder, whose department, along with the Medford and Lenape Regional school districts, is also involved with BCIT and St. Mary of the Lakes School. They maintain three school resource officers—one at Shawnee and two at Lenape—and the other schools are part of routine patrols. There used to be SROs at each district, but they’ve been victims of budget cuts over time.
Just as crucial are the repetitive drills.
“In law enforcement, we know that when we train, we may have to use it one day,” Meder says. “The more you train, the more you become familiar; you become comfortable. It’s almost like in sports. You have muscle memory. You react. Your body knows what to do.”
According to Dr. Maurice Elias, the director at Rutgers University’s Department of Psychology, increased police presence will only be beneficial if it is used as a teachable moment to help children understand everything that police do. By doing so, the focus shifts from security and danger to caring and concern.
It’s building on that emotional security for children that Elias, a nationally renowned expert in preventive psychology and school intervention, feels schools
are most lacking today. “We need to be concerned about the everyday culture and climate of the school and about the state of safety, civility and respect in society as a whole,” he says. “Those are the most important security measures we can take.”
Elias says educators need to play a bigger role in shaping children to take over the responsibilities of society as they become adults. That’s being prevented due to too strong of a focus on preparing students for a “life of tests instead of preparing them for the tests of life.”
He quotes: “As Theodore Roosevelt said, ‘To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.’”
In our Future
The actions of one such man have brought the issue of violence to the forefront of discussion—even though the issue was always there. There were 269 firearms-related homicides in New Jersey in 2011, as pointed out by Greenwald, representing a 9 percent increase from 2010. More than 12,000 people are killed by guns each year across the nation, a figure the CDC currently projects will surpass motor vehicle accident deaths by 2015.
In a way, Newtown has held everyone accountable.
“Are you going to sit there and be appalled and say it can’t happen again, or are you going to do something?” asks Bocour.
And though some have said compromise isn’t an option, it’s a multi-faceted approach—requiring open dialogue and give and take—that is being stressed from the governor’s office in New Jersey to Newtown where the nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise was formed by victims’ neighbors, friends and families to help guide a well-balanced national discussion on gun control/safety, mental health, school safety and parenting.
One of those families is the Sherlachs, the loved ones of school psychologist Mary Sherlach, who was one of the first ones killed as she tried to stop the gunman. Still going through the day-to-day motions in what’s described as a “cloudy” past four months, Mary’s daughter, Maura Schwartz—now a Deptford resident—says being involved with Sandy Hook Promise is helping her family keep her mother’s memory alive.
“She was all about helping people,” says Schwartz, a Salem High School choral teacher, of her 56-year-old mother who was one year away from retirement. “Being a psychologist was not just her job. For her, it was her life. Whether she was at work helping kids with autism or behavioral issues, whatever the case may be, or at home taking care of us, or lending an ear to her friends or family, she was there.”
The town council in Trumbull, Conn., recognized that—voting in February to rename the Trumbull Counseling Center in honor of her mother.
Trumbull, where Schwartz grew up, is just two towns away from Newtown, where the landscape looks straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting and people were once blissfully unaware of the national stage they would be thrust upon. “Just about as suburbia as you can get,” as Schwartz says. “If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.”
Now, many of those people—including gun owners and hunters—are part of Sandy Hook Promise, a group that feels it’s their responsibility to be involved in making real change happen. They are stressing equal parts listening and speaking, so conversations can take place where “even those with the most opposing views can debate in good will.”
Schwartz says she’s shielded herself from most of the gun debate, though she says it’s difficult for her to comprehend “the number of guns and ammunitions that woman had in that house when she had a semi-unstable son. … I think that could have prevented it,” she says, adding she does think more controls should be in place, but she prefers to focus on mental health reform.
She has started seeing a therapist herself to help ensure that when she gets to the anger stage, she handles it in as healthy a way as possible. “We need to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again,” Schwartz says. “I don’t have the answers. I don’t think any one person has the answers. It’s a group. People need to compromise and not get hardheaded. This can’t happen again in our country. This is too tragic to ever happen again, anywhere.”
According to Bach, the answer lies in strict punishment of gun crime with no plea bargains, maximum sentences and no early parole. Betze adds that maybe schools should be working hand-in-hand with mental health professionals to figure out what more they can do in regard to social services in the school setting. Meder thinks our communication needs to improve; our technology-obsessed personalities have done away with real personal interaction, thus leaving folks unaware of how to properly talk to one another about issues. “Why it takes a tragedy to force us to think about things that were no less important the day before that tragedy, we can lament,” Elias concludes. “But now, we must act, and act wisely.”
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 1 (April, 2013).
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