EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - Over 200 students and residents attended a town hall meeting held by Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman at the East Brunswick Community Center on Sunday, when the New Jersey's Representative from District 12 honored her promise to hear them voice their concerns following the massacre of 17 students and teachers in Parkland, FLA on February 14. Watson Coleman urged students to "be steadfast and fight for change," urging young people to vote because "voting has consequences."
Watson Coleman was joined on the dais by the Superintendent of the State Police Colonel Patrick J. Callahan; State Senator Patrick Diegnan (D-18); activist and pastor DeForest Soaries; and trauma specialist Dr. Jennifer Sparks. Each contributed a unique point of view on the national reaction by students to the issues lying behind the attacks on students in America's public schools.
The Congresswoman described her recent conversation with colleague Steven Scalise (R-LA) who was shot in the attack on members of Congress at a friendly baseball game. She expressed her disappointment that, even after Scalise had been injured, he remained loyal to his commitment to the National Rifle Association: "When he came back, we were hopeful that the experience would have had an impact on him and that he would be interested in tackling gun-control legislation. However, he said he was even more committed to gun ownership."
Nonetheless, the shootings at Parkland, though, gave the Congresswoman a "renewed sense of energy" regarding gun control. She encouraged those present to be "persistent and consistent." Watson Coleman is the co-sponsor of House Resolution 5087 which would ban the import, manufacture, purchase or sale of assault weapons. She has also introduced H.R. 5162 which would make firearms subject to review by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Colonel Callahan encouraged those in attendance to "understand the implication of guns in the hands of the wrong people. In a nod to the students, he said, "It's going to take your activism to keep this going."
He continued speaking while "putting on his father hat" and looking at the "27 school shootings in 2018" as a crisis in education. "We need to come at this from a legislation," he said. He went on to acknowledge how "impressed" he was by the Parkland students who spoke in Livingston, NJ earlier this month.
After the initial addresses, the focus shifted to the students and what they had to offer. One student raised the question of the stigmatization of those with mental health issues. Watson Coleman acknowledged that the issues are "permanent and diverse" and that "we often treat the crisis but not the cause." Senator Diegnan reminded those present that Parkland was judged to be the "Third safest place in America to live," yet he noted the "matter of privacy" that keeps some troubled people from cared for. Jennifer Sparks said, "We fear what we don't know. Most people don't know a lot about mental health." She then went on to discuss the fact that people with mental disabilities are more often the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it. "3-5 percent of people involved in mass shootings are likely to be mentally ill, she said."
Callahan spoke sensitively about the stress placed on New Jersey State Troopers and the 3 suicides by gun that have occurred this year within the ranks. He let those present know about the Office of Peer Advocacy, a new program that may offer the emotional support his officers need.
An East Brunswick High School senior asked why no written exams or proof of training were required for gun purchases, as are required for driving privileges. Watson Coleman praised the idea and encouraged people to "put pressure on lawmakers" to make getting a gun more difficult.
Pastor Soaries, who has served as New Jersey's Secretary of State, suggested a paradigm shift. "We need an updated understanding of the right to bear arms. You don't need a machine gun unless you want to hunt for people, " he said.
A student from Lawrence High School asserted that "extremism on both sides is a problem." She said, "Getting rid of guns is an unrealistic goal and suited for a utopian society." Watson Coleman countered, saying, "Certain weapons do not have a role in a civilian community."
Another East Brunswick student discussed gun violence by people in authority, referencing the case of Tamir Rice, a young boy killed by police in Cleveland, OH as compared to that of Nikolas Cruz in Parkland: "A white kid in Florida arrested after a shooting, a black kid in Ohio shot for having a toy gun." Calla han responded with an affirmation of the role of community policing, with the goal of "instilling public trust one relationship at a time." He stated that one incident can cause social unrest and that compassion must play a role in policing. "Compassion, " he said, "is law enforcement's greatest strength and not a weakness."
When a student brought up the role of the National Rifle Association's financial support for some politicians, Watson Coleman joked that she was proud of her "F" rating from the group. "Just because someone supports you, doesn't mean they own you, " she said.
Soaries added, "The solution is not political. Our culture promotes violence. Until we have humans stop tolerating guns and violence, we will not get rid of guns."
East Brunswick Mayor Brad Cohen spoke to the young people in the audience, especially those who had attended the vigil held in the township on February 26, " You have one enemy - the NRA. This is your time."
The next EBHS student informed the group that 275 members of the community will travel to Washington for the "March for Our Lives" protest on March 24. The student described himself as a member of "Generation Columbine," a young person who has never know life in school without school shootings, anti-bullying programs, lockdown drills, and a sense of fear. Soaries and Watson Coleman warned protesters to be aware of and alert for "bad actors" at the events they attend and to remain focused on their goals and message.
Students then asked about lowering the voting age to 16, enabling online voter registration, and addressing the difficulty of voting when they are away at school. Referring to local/regional attempts to maintain New Jersey's tough gun laws, Diegnan put a good deal of the blame on former Governor Chris Christie for not passing voting legislation and gun control: "If you can vote online from Afghanistan,l ike members of the military do, you should be able to vote online from Rutgers." Watson Coleman encouraged young people, saying,"If you can't vote, volunteer for a campaign."
East Brunswick vigil organizer Jeff Winston directly attacked the NRA, urging that Watson Coleman look into revoking the 5014C Internal Revenue code for the organization which earned $336 million last year. This status names the NRA as an organization that is non-profit and which promotes social welfare.
"There are many Republicans who are on our side, "said Watson Coleman, "We have to keep the heat on." Deignan added, "Not every member of the NRA is the devil. We have to bring everyone to the table."
Middlesex County Freeholder Shanti Narra described how many people in government are "silenced" by the NRA and how the NRA's position "frames the discussions" about guns in general, preventing the review of "fair and reasonable" gun laws.
Taking a new direction, EBHS graduate Austin Chen discussed the national shortage of psychiatrists and the need for incentives for medical students to go into psychiatry so as to improve mental health care. Watson Coleman described a "prioritization of resources" in education. Sparks spoke of the need to "help our communities form the inside out."
Carole Stiller, president of the New Jersey Chapters of the Million Mom March / Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, who has been working for an end to gun violence since Mother's Day in 2000 when more than a million activists brought their concerns to the nation's capitol, discussed the things people can do in their own homes to prevent gun violence. "Speak up in your school. Let your voice be heard," she said.
The event concluded with a reminder concerning the ongoing need for young people to become unified and to become educated about government. As Colonel Callahan said earlier in the event, "Look at the twigs thrown all over your yard after the recent snow. Each of them is easily broken. Bundle them together them together, though, and then try to break them. Good luck with that."