NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Former Gov. James Florio recalls a curious detail about his 1974 Congressional run in New Jersey’s 1st Legislative District: He had the support of the National Rifle Association.
In today’s political climate, a nod from the gun lobby for a Democratic candidate who supports gun control is unthinkable. But 40 years ago, it was not a big deal.
“Back when I first ran, the NRA was focused on land conservation so hunters could hunt,” Florio said Wednesday at the Rutgers School of Social Work in New Brunswick, where he headed a panel discussion, “Gun Violence: Politics, Policy & Prevention.”
It made sense. The South Jersey district is home to Camden, and surrounding areas were either suburban or semi-rural. Voters interested in hunting wanted to make sure there were areas designated for hunting.
Today, that’s all drastically changed. Florio, who as governor signed into law a tough ban on assault weapons in 1990, said the momentum exists today to achieve similar legislative triumphs.
“What we were able to do in 1990 was what I consider to be New Jersey's finest hour. It was an inspiration for us. We've done it before and we can do it again,” he said.
It won’t come easy, Florio warned.
“When I signed that bill into law, I said ‘Nobody needs an Uzi. Nobody needs an AK-47,’ and now we’re wondering if it’s reasonable to have 30 bullets in the clip. Is it reasonable that police have bulletproof jackets and yet we produce armor piercing bullets?” he said.
“Washington is a basket case,” Florio added. “Congress prohibits research on gun violence and they’ve been doing bad things instead of good things.”
The former governor signaled to the 2018 midterm elections, saying the political climate exists to address gun violence. “Being a one-issue voter is typically not a good practice, but in this case, it might be, because pro-gun people are one-issue voters.”
The panel discussion, which was attended by mostly university students, included several grassroots anti-gun violence advocates, including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence/Million Mom March, Moms Demand Action, and the Princeton-based Coalition for Peace Action.
“We stand for common sense solutions and we want to keep guns out of hands for dangerous individuals,” said Christine McGrath of Moms Demand Action, whose platform includes background checks on all gun sales.
“One myth of advocacy is that we've made no progress, and it’s a myth because we haven't seen any progress on the federal front. But as we’ve seen in New Jersey, we can change the culture,” McGrath said.
Tapping into on-campus advocacy and voter registration will play a prominent role in upcoming elections, McGrath noted.
“I need you to bottle up what you're feeling about this cause, because when we get through the primaries, we're going to need you to go door-to-door and make phone calls. We are going to have very actives races where gun violence is going to be front and center,” she said.
Karen Kanter, of the Middlesex County chapter of the Brady Campaign, said another myth was that the seemingly disparate advocacy groups are running parallel courses.
“You have to build a coalition so we can be more effective,” she said. “Remember that you have to persist and let people know that this is not over. You have to keep it in your consciousness and remind people that 96 people die every day of gun violence.”
Carole Stiller, also of the Brady Campaign, said this level of collaboration moves all the way down to the grassroots level as well.
“Community members need to be advocates, too. We need people to come in and tell their story,” Stiller said.
That element is critical in advancing any movement for the long term, said the Rev. Robert Moore of the Coalition for Peace Action.
“That's what people power looks like. That's what democracy in action looks like. We have a big challenge ahead and if you're a student and want safe schools then you better get out and vote,” Moore said.
William Waldman, professor and executive in residence at the Rutgers School of Social Work, said the time to take action on gun violence is now, particularly in the student activist community.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, because I haven't seen anything like that since the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement,” Waldman said.
"The time to act is now.”