By Amanda Valentovic
SUMMIT, NJ — Residents from Essex and Union counties gathered Jan. 13 at Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit to hold a vigil in honor of the victims of gun violence, before turning the program into an introduction to ways to prevent gun violence. The event was held halfway between the anniversaries of the Dec. 14, 2012, Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., and the Feb. 14, 2018, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla. Attendees lit candles to remember those students killed, in addition to the 199 victims of gun violence who died in New Jersey in 2019.
The Rev. Robin Tanner led the vigil, which was organized by South Orange resident Katherine Allen, and told attendees that in 2019, 15,208 people died in the United States because of gun violence. Of those people, 692 were under the age of 11, and 3,068 were between 12 and 17 years old, as per the Gun Violence Archive.
“Tonight, we hold both the enormity of these numbers and the intimacy of the loss of these lives that ripple across the world and here in our town,” Tanner said. “We also hold forth, in the midst of sorrow and lament, the prophecy for justice. We know that these deaths can be prevented. Not with magical thinking or one-state solutions, but with real federal policy that is mirrored on the local level.”
The names of the 26 Sandy Hook victims and the 17 Parkland victims were projected on a screen as Maplewood’s Heather Harrington and Lorelei Harrington Wright performed a dance choreographed for the event. Patti Wilson-Fico, co-leader of the Union County Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America chapter, read the poem “Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czeslaw Milosz,” by Matthew Oldman.
South Orange resident Andy Roth and Maplewood resident Brian Kelly performed Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” while the names of the 199 victims of gun violence in New Jersey in 2019 were projected. Those names were also written on paper cranes that hung over the vigil from the church’s balcony.
“The disinformation campaigns would have you believe that the victims of gun violence are disproportionately white and that the perpetrators suffer from mental illness,” Tanner said. “We acknowledge here, as we read names, that the vast majority of deaths and injuries occur in poor and low-wealth communities, many of them majority black or people of color. Communities that have been systematically militarized since the abolition of slavery and resource deprived through policy and rhetoric.”
Charlene Walker, executive director of Faith in New Jersey, a network of faith leaders working to advance social and economic justice at the local, state and federal level, echoed the same point when she discussed urban gun violence at the event.
“We often do not talk about urban gun violence,” Walker, whose cousin was killed by a gunman in Newark when she was a child, said at the event. “Our urban communities are crying out for help. The reality is, we know what to do. There are programs; the problem is that they don’t get funded.”
Lisa Reznik, a Maplewood resident and the director of the Summit Film Society, introduced a short film called “Aiming for Safety,” made by members of the film society with help from other activists, including event organizer Allen. The seven-minute film features George Faison, a hunter who advocates for gun safety, and presents regulations that can be put into effect, including universal background checks, banning assault weapons, promoting safer technology-based guns and promoting more safety training for gun owners.
Brady: United Against Gun Violence is a gun control advocacy group that is named after Jim Brady, the White House press secretary who was shot in 1981 during the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.
Karen Kanter, the chairwoman of the Middlesex County chapter of Brady, was at the event to explain New Jersey’s red flag law, which went into effect in September.
“The goal is to ensure the safety of the restrained individual and those around them by restricting their access to firearms,” Kanter said.
The law, which is called the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act, allows family members or people who live with a person who owns a gun to file a request that the gun owner not be allowed access to the gun if they are deemed to be at risk of harming themselves or others.
Other states have similar laws, but Kanter said New Jersey is the first to have an ERPO that remains in effect until the person requests it be lifted, rather than for one year.
“Suicide has one of the highest rates of gun violence,” Kanter said. “If they don’t have access to a gun, they have a higher chance of surviving.”
The law prohibits those against whom an order is filed from possessing or purchasing a firearm. The difference between ERPO and domestic violence laws is that, with domestic violence, an incident has to have already happened for action to be taken. That’s not the case with the red flag law.
“No criminal act is re
quired, which is really, really important,” Kanter said. “The act hasn’t happened, and it’s what we’re trying to prevent.”
Only family members, household members and law enforcement officers can file a petition for an ERPO. According to Kanter, the law began to be used as soon as it went into effect Sept. 1.
The form to file an ERPO petition can be found at www.njcourts.gov/selfhelp/catalog.html?keywords=ERPO. Information about the law can be found at www.nj.gov/oag/newsreleases19/pr20190815b.html.