MONTCLAIR, NJ - Essex County Freeholder at-Large and Board of Freeholders President Brendan Gill met with members of the Union Baptist Church on Midland Avenue in Montclair and other members of the community to discuss the ongoing epidemic of gun violence in the country.  The February 13 community meeting was part of the Break the Hate series of conversations hosted by the Rev. Campbell Singleton, pastor of the Union Baptist Church.

Reverend Singleton introduced Freeholder Gill with a lament of the continuing gun violence that plagues the United States, saying that sometimes gun-control advocates feel powerless to stop it but that it is necessary to keep trying to fight it. Guns claim the lives of 32,000 people in the U.S. each year – 11,000 murders and 21,000 suicides – and 80,000 Americans are wounded annually.

Freeholder Gill talked about being at the forefront of the gun issues, citing the work he has done as a state director to the late Senator Frank Lautenberg, who successfully pushed through legislation to prevent perpetrators of domestic violence from purchasing firearms and subsequently kept guns out of the hands of 150,000 individuals who should not have had them. He also noted that Governor Phil Murphy, whose 2017 campaign he managed, has tightened gun laws with background checks for private gun sales, signed legislation reducing the capacity of magazines to ten rounds and outlawing armor-piercing bullets, and funded mental health programs. But he acknowledged that ongoing efforts to reduce gun violence have stalled. He noted that bills introduced in Congress to close the gun-show loophole for background checks and banning firearm sales to individuals on the “terror watch list” designed to catch terrorists have not succeeded in passing.

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“At least there should be some kind of process where you can’t just show up, being on that list, and purchase a firearm,” Gill said in exasperation. “It’s just common sense.” Freeholder Gill says that he does support the Second Amendment, and he explained that he believes that gun rights can be balanced with “common-sense reform” measures.

Gill was quick to point out to Union Baptist parishioners and other attendees that Essex County has taken its own large step in fighting gun violence with an ordinance the Board of Freeholders passed in 2015. The ordinance requires that vendors of firearms that do business with the county have to answer a list of questions about their business practices about being more socially responsible.

Businesses that sell firearms to the county have to say what steps they have taken to combat illegal gun trafficking, whether they sell assault weapons for civilian use other than for target practice, what policies they have to ensure that their gun dealers require permits to purchase firearms, and whether they are committed to researching the effects of gun violence. They must also prove that they work with reputable dealers and sell lethal products like armor-piercing bullets only to law enforcement and the military.

Gill conceded the limitations of such efforts, especially with regards to terror groups who are associated with the white nationalist movement who accumulate firearms for the purpose of spreading their bigoted, violent agendas. “I don’t want to be overly political,” he added, “but . . . we have a leader right now who’s made it very clear that that’s okay, there’s no consequence, and we don’t have enough people saying its not okay and calling it for what it is, which is racism and hate.”

The one major change Freeholder Gill has seen with regard over the gun issue is how gun violence has spilled out of its confines in decaying urban areas and has become so pervasive in small towns and suburbs that no one can ignore it and dismiss it as an inner-city problem. He noted the domestic-violence murder of a secretary at Glenfield School in 1989, which was treated as a one-time thing and was not even responded to with a lockdown, followed by the 1995 mass shooting at the Fairfield Street post office, as examples of how the cycle of violence worked its way into Montclair.

Gill expressed sorrow over the increase of lockdowns in school districts across the country and the adverse effect such a culture of violence and a need for greater security were having on the health of young children. He suggested that perhaps school districts should hire more counselors and mental-health experts to explain why lockdowns are necessary so that children are not conditioned to accepting such tactics as normal. The influence of gun violence and lockdowns, he said, are affecting children “in ways we don’t know yet.”

The attendees offered their own views about the Second Amendment, with some suggesting its repeal and others conditioning it by reinforcing gun license renewals and treating gun ownership as a privilege, like driving. Freeholder Gill offered an unexpected defense of his support for the Second Amendment, often interpreted as a constitutional provision authorizing state units of the National Guard in accordance with the idea of “a well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State.”

He noted that the “current leader” may not easily surrender the Presidency if he loses the 2020 presidential election. “We kind of take for granted this peaceful transfer of power,” he said.

“Sometimes we may still need to have access [to guns], because you don’t know what’s going to happen. I hope it doesn’t happen.”

Gill encouraged the parishioners of Union Baptist to continue working with other congregations and with local activist groups to reduce the proliferation of guns.

Reverend Singleton took a moment to demonstrate his efforts at addressing another issue that particularly concerns Montclair’s black population, namely Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker’s remarks about allowing teachers to hold racist views so long as they do not share them while on the job.

He plans to write a letter to Board of Education President Eve Robinson about the issue, noting that he was less concerned about Parker, whose interim term is up in July, than with getting the Board of Education to stand up against the prospect of any permanent successor who might concur with Parker’s view. Gill agreed with Reverend Singleton’s initiative, saying that it was important for the community to stand together on the schools as well as on gun control in order to ensure a more inclusive superintendent committed to greater teacher diversity and closing the achievement gap.