promoted by Rosi
A former Marine and LAPD police officer once said to me, when I asked why he studied theology and philosophy, “To understand a man, you first need to know what he believes.”
I was reminded of those words as I watched the Gun Safety Forum in Teaneck unfold. Earlier, I was not optimistic the meeting would be productive. The shouting would soon start and civility and reason would be the first casualties. Or so I thought.
In December, like any breathing American, I was emotionally crushed by the loss of children at Newtown and have been haunted by this story. I have family members and friends who hunt, or target shoot, or who own guns for protection, but also ones who are teachers, and parents with small children. Like the heart-wrenching fights between brothers in any civil war, this one is a classic that has been going on since I was a child.
On Sunday, thanks to a (mostly ) civil discussion led by Laura Zucker at the Ethical Culture Society, as hard as it was for each side to hear the other, there was actual discussion and questions asked and answered. I was impressed that folks actually learned something from each other.
Before the forum, a well-dressed, serious looking young man was setting up a camera in the back of the room to capture the event. He politely reached out his hand and introduced himself. He was with the Second Amendment Society. He seemed earnest and polite, not what I expected after watching Alex Jones on Piers Morgan, but I realized at that moment, I, myself had been biased before walking in the door. I would withhold judgment until I heard what he had to say. He obviously wanted to be taken seriously, which was what this forum was for. The legislators already knew what the anti-gun side believes. This was a real chance, in a proper setting, to hear what the gun rights side believed. Hopefully it would be shared with a minimum of shouting.
Present on the Panel were:
Congressman Bill Pascrell, who is very involved with the Law Enforcement community, and who had sponsored the assault weapons ban
Second Amendment Society representative Alexander Roubian
Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, former member of the US military and also former Police Officer
State Senate Majority Leader, Loretta Weinberg
Million Mom March representative Dr. Asyah Aquil
The short notice of the event kept the crowd to a manageable, and intimate size of about 60 people – evenly split. They naturally and wordlessly gravitated to separate sides of the room. The gun rights on the right and the gun control on the left.
Before Zucker began by allowing each panel member to give an opening statement, she laid out the ground rules and that all voices would be heard. Throughout the forum I would appreciate Zucker’s no nonsense ability to quell unrest. No shrinking violet, this 4 ft 11 inch tall Democratic firecracker would handle the hecklers like the feisty Jewish Grandmother she is. I credit her with keeping the discussion on track. Explaining up front that she grew up in Brooklyn and learned as a child to handle a switchblade just so that she would know how to protect herself from potentially being attacked while walking around her changing neighborhood (though she never carried one), gave her more street cred than your average grandmother. She was going to take garbage from exactly no one and she delivered on that promise.
Congressman Pascrell, helped sponsor the assault weapons ban in the past and stated because of the descriptions of the guns involved, it is necessary to have gun owners in on discussion. In addition, he has been working hard to get more police on the streets, because the police are who we pay to protect us. Protecting our families (another point of common ground) was easier with more cops on the street. He understood the need to protect your family but asked “Do I need a cannon in the living room?” Gun trafficking is a major issue with illegal guns entering NJ from the South, and in places like Mexico, guns are actually flowing from the US into Mexico. The aim is not to prevent people from owning guns, but to keep folks from obtaining them illegally. Another issue no one likes to discuss is mental health – particularly military veterans, who are at high risk for suicide. He also mentioned that Gabby Giffords was a good friend of his and a motivating force for him.
Alexander Roubian of the Second Amendment Society quickly and emphatically said he did not represent the NRA. Roubian did not think about guns for years, until a man was gunned down behind him as he walked down the street one day. He felt helpless as the man’s life slipped away before his eyes. After that event, he legally purchased a gun, learned how to use it, but at the same time searched for answers why the teens in gangs would turn to gun violence. He interviewed gang members and tried to find meaning from the senseless crime he witnessed. He firmly believes it is not so much the influence of violent culture, but poverty, joblessness and lack of education. Alexander’s story was compelling and explained his earnest beliefs.
Assemblyman Gordon Johnson then spoke about his background in the military and as a police officer. He has been instrumental in trying to address gang violence. He laid out the case for stricter background checks and training. He stated that the key is to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.
Majority Leader Weinberg and Congressman Pascrell reiterated that nothing in the entire package of bills, which was distributed in a handout to everyone, would abridge the rights of legal gun owners to exercise the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment is safe from repeal. The Historic New Bridge Landing, which Loretta is involved with often has re-enactors using guns prominently in most events there. Guns have been in our history since it’s very beginning. We need to change our present culture of violence if we hope to address the problem.
Dr. Aquil talked of her experiences dealing with gun crimes in Newark. She spoke of better background checks, and stopping illegal gun trafficking. There are so many unsolved murders when gun violence happens in the city. She said ask a 14 year old in the city where they can get a gun, and they know how to get one.
One of the issues that came up was ammunition sales. The gun owners said they already need to provide an FID for purchase of ammunition online. Weinberg promised she would look into that issue. She had been under the impression that internet sales could be done without it.
Another gun owner who brought his wife and baby with him said he does bear hunting and that he needs a 50 caliber gun to participate in that sport. Gordon Johnson promised to look into that issue as well.
One of the gun owners stated that he realized there needs to be some regulation. They are not interested in creating a “Wild West” atmosphere and that it is obvious he cannot have a rocket launcher or a nuclear weapon in his house. The gun safety folks seemed relieved to hear that.
However, there were a few moments where audience members (on both sides) got upset and spoke out of turn. The first episode was when gun owners interrupted the Congressman. They mentioned a Supreme Court ruling that allegedly states that the police do not have a duty to protect the public. Because of that, they felt an obligation to take their own protection on their shoulders. They are worried that criminals like unarmed citizens. Like sitting ducks, if law-abiding citizens are denied guns, only the criminals will have them. As the Congressman tried to explain the actual oaths that police officers take, he was shouted down. Laura handled the disruption quickly by mentioning she represents two Native American Tribes to the government. If these people, who have been massacred and discriminated against can come to the table and talk with the government who oppressed them, surely we can have a civil conversation and respect each other’s opinion? The room settled down and the gun advocate who broke the decorum said humbly “My apologies”.
At this stage , Loretta chose two bills that she thought at least everyone could all agree on, perhaps – 3510 – needing proof of firearm safety training and 3687 – which disqualifies someone on the terrorist watch list from buying a firearm.
The gun rights folks were going for neither. Their argument on the first was that training was not necessary because law abiding folks get training already on their own or their Dads teach them. I was trying to be impartial, but this argument struck me as magical thinking. Besides, they said, you cannot treat getting a gun like driving a car because one is a “right” and the other a “privilege”. You cannot impose a training requirement on something that is a “right”. The other argument against the watchlist was that they said there is no way to get off the watchlist if you are on it erroneously. Loretta mentioned that there is a procedure for appealing being on the watchlist but she would look into that complaint. At the same time, she stated that although you have a right to a gun, she had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Your right should not make her right less important.
At this moment a Professor of Human Rights from Columbia spoke up and stated that no right is absolute. You have the right to practice your religion, but not the right to gather your religious friends, stand in front of my house at 3 am, and sing Gregorian chants. When rights conflict those rights must be re-contoured to achieve resolution.
Then a young former soldier, spoke up. Markus Hirschhorn, a sharp shooter and gun expert in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) proudly admitted owning an AR-15 at home. He stated that the concept of rights as, he had a right to own a gun, but not the right to shoot people. The ” illegal “parts of a rifle make it safer and more stable to shoot. He then unwittingly unleashed the most volitile moment of the forum. This was in Teaneck, with a large Jewish population. Although Hitler and Nazi comments were blessedly absent, one of the members of the audience asked the former soldier – “Is a citizen allowed to have an AR-15 at home in Israel?” He said “yes”. The audience member asked “which part of Israel?” knowing that the average citizen is NOT allowed to own an AR- 15 weapon, the soldier replied “The West Bank”. A vocal uproar ensued. “The West Bank is not Israel!”. The soldier retorted forcefully “Yes it is!” and turned to defiantly glare at his questioner. It escaped no one that even the parts of the Middle East with the most guns are the most dangerous. Laura stepped in and quelled the outbursts. Nobody wanted to litigate the occupation debate. Laura reminded everyone that she grew up in Brooklyn and knew how to keep order. Nothing like a Jewish grandmother to get everyone back in line.
Now the gun safety advocates got a turn. I was actually surprised by the vitriolic tone of the gun safety folks. That made the defensive attitude of the gun owners understandable. Laura had to do some calming on this side of the room as well.
Statistics were brought up that people who lived in a home with a gun were 22 times more likely to be the victim of gun violence. At this point Roubian mentioned that he is a gun safety trainer. Loretta looked incredulously at him and asked why, if he is against requiring training, does he give training? She was advocating a new “cottage industry” for guys just like him. The irony of being against gun safety training requirement while being a gun safety instructor was completely lost on the earnest, serious Mr. Roubian, although it garnered laughter in the room.
Gun violence in Chicago was a problem because the gun laws in the state of Illinois are lax. Someone else spoke of a teenager who got a gun to protect himself but it accidentally killed his neighbor.
The watershed moment that clarified the comments by the gun rights advocates into a coherent point was when Laura said that anyone caught committing a crime with a gun should see a more severe punishment. The hearty applause in the room from everyone regardless of their side was a surprise. Finally, common ground and a useful insight for further discussions.
Nobody wants to be profiled ahead of time. Young men of color experience it every day, and after Newtown, gun owners, justly or not, feel like they are being treated like criminals before the fact. Which explains the word choices. “We are law-abiding citizens”. “Patriots”. “Americans”. When a gun rights advocate calls himself a Patriot, he is not saying that the non-gun owner is not an American. He is simply saying that HE or SHE – the gun owner, is not a criminal. They are sensitive to being treated like they are about to commit a crime when they are simply exercising their right to own a gun. Us vs. Them to a gun owner appears to be the law-abiding citizen who owns a gun vs the criminal that would do him harm, break into his home, hurt his family and make him need the gun. It seems that the plaintive cry I heard at the forum was simply. “I’m not the bad guy here. The criminals are – go after THEM.” And so, the one coherent point everyone could actually agree on yesterday was that gun crimes should be punished more heavily than they are. Gun owners want criminals off the streets just as much as non gun owners do. Common Ground.
Now how do we do that? The problem is an age old one. How do you know a person is about to commit a crime? Many folks who commit these mass shootings are law abiding citizens – until they aren’t. Criminals don’t wear scarlet letters either. In the film the Minority Report, the police begin to arrest folks BEFORE they commit crimes. As you can see, doing that has its problems. We do have an obligation to try to prevent these problems without demonizing folks who are “law-abiding”. In Newtown the guns were legally purchased, but they were used to commit a crime by someone without a prior criminal record. In cities the problem is not assault rifles as much as illegal handguns. We have a multifaceted problem that needs a multi-pronged approach. Despite magical thinking, people do die of gun accidents and gun training cuts down on that. Mental illness itself is not a crime and people can and do shoot in moments of passion and despair and these facts should be accounted for. Deterrents don’t matter in these cases. Access does. We need to realize that the laws are not there to inconvenience folks or insult them, but to make society safer. How we get there is the challenge as Congressman Pascrell said. And we can’t escape the fact that the common denominator in all mass shootings is the presence of a gun. It is the 800 lb AR-15 in the room. Discussions on preventing mass shootings need to include guns. A gun is kind of necessary to a mass shooting, is it not?
One exchange revealed the intractable nature of the debate up to now. One woman stood up and stated that the gun owners seemed “fearful” and “paranoid”. Then a gun owner stood up and politely asked “How many of you want to outlaw guns, period? Be honest now.” I admit I was surprised. Out of about 30 people, 8 raised their hands. “That is what we are afraid of.” The gun owner said. Then respectfully another audience member stood up and asked the gun owners what laws would they be amenable to. The gun owners basically said, None. One very passionate guy who reminded me of the House Republicans said that any compromise would have to start with the Legislators repealing half the gun laws already on the books.
That a relatively civil discussion was able to happen at all is a huge first step. NJ gun owners felt like they were railroaded this week because they did not understand the legislative process. They were upset because the vote to bring it to the floor for debate happened before they weighed in. They did not realize that a committee vote is not the whole legislative body and that there is time to get their voices heard before the votes to pass a bill. Hopefully they understand their legislators are willing to hear them out and that speaking reasonably is the best way to get not only your voice heard, but your message.
At the end of the discussion, Roubian looked beaten and sad and I could see that he was disappointed. He said he was unhappy that the issues he brought up of poverty and lack of opportunity and education were not really even discussed. In all the talk in the room by others of background checks and how much it costs to be a gun owner, and that you cannot kill that many people with just your hands, and rights, and privileges, the points he brought up appeared to be lost. I don’t think he realized just what a success the forum was. It was a rare civil discussion on a very emotional issue. Don’t worry, Mr. Roubian, we were listening.