Peaceful Turnout for Gun Violence Forum
By Ellen Oliver
A public forum “Gun Violence: Nine months after Newtown: What has changed?” was held by the Stow Democratic Town Committee on September 18 at Hale School. The forum was originally scheduled to be held in May, but was postponed due to concerns about the potential size of the turnout and need for increased security measures, according to the SDTC.
The panel members for the forum, some different from the ones scheduled for May, included John Rosenthal from Stop Handgun Violence, Angus McQuilken from the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence and StateRepresentative Michael Brady, who is on the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. James Wallace from the Gun Owners Action League, was also scheduled to appear, but withdrew the day before due to illness.
About 60 people attended the forum, moderated by State Senator Jamie Eldridge. Opening remarks were made by Stow resident Jim Cohen, who said he was switching hats from chairman of the STDC to primary care physician.
“Although we tend to focus on mass murders like the one that occurred in Newtown, only a small percentage of murders in the country are assaults on groups perpetuated by mentally ill individuals. The bigger issue is how to reduce the 31,000 annual deaths and 75,000 annual injuries that result from gun violence,” he stated.
After brief opening statements, the panel responded to audience questions submitted on cards. Topics included conflicting statistics on gun laws and gun-related deaths, the role of the National Rifle Association in lobbying lawmakers, enforcement of existing laws, background checks, and the Navy Yard shooting which had occurred just two days before the forum.
McQuilken, who worked on the 1998 legislative measure to require trigger locks or gun safes in Massachusetts, said there are three areas where Massachusetts needs to improve its gun laws: information exchange of mental health records during gun licensing checks; licensing standards so the responsibility for issuing permits doesn’t fall to a judgment call by a chief of police; and trafficking. “We need stronger penalty measures when you buy a gun for someone else,” he said.
One recurring topic was the relationship between mental health information and background checks. McQuilken said Massachusetts is one of seven states that does not make that information available at the federal level. Rep. Brady acknowledged that Massachusetts is taking steps to correct this. “New HIPPA laws protect privacy, but hampers access,” he said. “We need a system that works for lawful gun owners.”
The panelists said access to mental health records in background checks needs to be viewed not only as necessary to protect the public, but also to prevent people with mental illness from hurting themselves. Rosenthal, who is known for the 250’ x 20’ anti-gun violence billboard along the Mass Turnpike, pointed to the 2000 shooting at Edgewater Technology in Wakefield that killed seven people.
“[The shooter] had been voluntary institutionalized three times and was sleeping in a coffin when he did this. The Navy yard shooter told people he was hearing voices,” he said. “The last thing they needed was unrestricted access to guns.”
When discussing enforcement, McQuilken said gun control laws work. “The states with tougher laws have fewer deaths.” Listing Massachusetts and Hawaii as states with strict gun control laws and states like Louisiana, Alaska and Arkansas as having “the highest gun deaths and some of the weakest laws.”
Rosenthal said it was also time to bring gun manufacturers to the table, stating “there are more regulations on the manufacturing of teddy bears than on guns.” He acknowledged that Smith & Wesson agreed to supply a child safety lock with every gun sold, but added manufacturers should embrace new technologies as further safety measures.
“70% of police are killed by their own gun when a bad guy grabs it,” he said. “Guns can be sold with a bracelet so only the intended owner can shoot it.”
The panel gave the Massachusetts legislature a lot of credit for passing the existing laws, but said there’s still work to be done. McQuilken ended with a call to action, prompting people to fill out postcards to mail into their law makers. “Raise your voice,” he said.
Rep. Brady expanded on McQuilken’s remarks, saying “We represent you, so we need your input. We want to protect lawful gun owners and their rights, but we also have to protect the public.”
After the event, one gentleman, who declined to give his name, said he was frustrated.
“This was not a discussion. The audience did not have a chance to challenge misleading information and stats that knowledgeable people in the audience could have corrected,” he said. The man also said he had submitted two questions, but neither was read.
Senator Eldridge stated he decided which questions were read to the panel. “I wanted an equal balance of questions that were pro-gun control and anti-gun control,” he explained. “Some questions were more statements, not questions.”
Eldridge added, “With any public forum, obviously some people are going to be unhappy,” but said he received feedback from both sides of the issue that the forum was run fairly.