TOMS RIVER – A student organized rally held Feb. 19 drew a crowd and featured loud voices with a clear message calling for gun restrictions in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The rally was held in the township’s downtown area.
After years of incidents involving violent shootings at schools, the latest being at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed, students of Toms River High School North decided it was time for students from their schools and others in Ocean County to speak out on the subject. The rally gathered around 60 people.
Toms River High School North junior Zach Dougherty, a member of the Young Ocean County Democrats organization, organized the Washington Street based rally along with several fellow students who also served as speakers. Dougherty had organized a similar rally of students last September to add a young voice to the plight of DACA regulations which was threatened to end through a policy change by the president.
“It was a grassroots effort and we used Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to get people involved, which helps bridge the gap to reach the political groups. Students typically get a back seat when it comes to policies but we want to have a voice and be involved in making a change,” Dougherty said prior to the start of the noon rally. The purpose of the rally was to call on President Donald Trump and members of Congress to take action to restrict access to firearms and other actions to prevent additional mass shootings.
Among those who gathered early for the event was Susan Cummings and Arlene Marcoe, both of the Cedar Run section of Stafford Township. “We support the students here and their message. We remember the Columbine shooting,” Cummings said.
Marcoe said that she and Cummings were members of the Barnegat Friends Quakers who have strong views on gun control. Both women had doubts that positive action to restrict automatic and semi-automatic weapons could be curtailed through legislation on the federal level.
“We are concerned for the kids. These are Democrat kids and Republican kids. This is a moral issue. At least if we could get them to abandon assault rifles that would be a step forward. No one is fighting gun ownership but there is a distinction here about what type of guns should be permitted and to whom,” Marcoe said.
“I hope the state will make a change as the federal government does not seem to be up to it,” Cummings added.
Toms River resident Shirl Giles, a retired teacher from the Toms River School District, said “if children and adults come together they can get things done with the help of parents. Hopefully this will help get something done.”
Sherry Derr, also of Toms River, brought signs to the event to protest. She said “I came out as I feel very strongly about what is happening and the stupidity that is happening. The NRA (National Rifle Association) spent $21 million on presidential election alone and that is alarming.”
Derr added that “the 2nd Amendment came about at a time when we were fighting the redcoats and it was never meant to morph into something like this, allowing for everyone to have military weapons like this is beyond my comprehension. Something has to change.”
Roseann De Pasquale joined friends from her community of Waretown for the rally. “No one needs to buy assault weapons, for now at least, lets work to stop assault weapons.”
Social activist Emma Mammano of Brick read the names of each of the 17 students and high school staff who were slain during last week’s shooting. Following a moment of silence, Dougherty, Toms River High School sophomore Andreas Psillos and senior Evelyn Nazario spoke.
“For six years there have been debates about this subject but the majority of those in Congress have done nothing. We should be worrying about taking our algebra tests. We shouldn’t have to worry about what exits we need to find in case there is a lockdown at the school,” Dougherty said.
“Lets stop this. We need to elect people who care,” Dougherty said, adding that while mental health issues and added school security are part of the issue “we wouldn’t need more security in schools if it didn’t come to this. This debate is killing our students.”
“Our gun laws are almost non-existent due to the NRA,” Psillos said. “Does it make sense that those who are on the no-fly list should not be allowed to own guns?” he asked noting that such a policy plan had been struck down last year.
“It is time for a change. We want the right of protection for all students,” Nazario said.
Theresa Turner of the organization Mothers Demand Action commended the students who coordinated the rally. “You will be the force for change in our country. If a public official is known to be doing nothing about this problem, vote them out.”
That theme and a chant from the crowd reverberated several times with those speakers who followed Turner.
Congressman Thomas MacArthur, whose office based in the Toms River Township Hall mere steps away from the rally, was the target of criticism regarding legislation that he put forward concerning carrying concealed weapons. Turner said that the representative’s legislation would have allowed the shooter responsible for last week’s shooting to have brought his weapon to New Jersey.
Two 4th District Democratic congressional candidates, Josh Welle, Rumson, and Jim Keady, Spring Lake, who hope to unseat long time Republican incumbent Chris Smith next November, echoed the call for residents to vote out those who have ignored taking action on the gun regulation issue.
“Unseat every congressman who does not protect these children,” Welle said.
Keady said that “it is time we amplify the voice of the students and do something to provide common sense gun reform now. There are many gun owners and non-gun owners who agree on this. We are going to have to march, act, perform acts of disobedience and chain ourselves to the White House to get action. Women mobilized, and it took 83 years for them to get the right to vote. I think we can do this in a shorter amount of time.”
Dougherty said that he and his fellow students may be part of upcoming rallies related to those planned nation-wide on March 24 and April 20 demanding action be taken.
“We will push for this until the end.” He concluded the rally telling the audience of around 60 people that he received encouragement from a relative who told him “if you are crazy enough to think you can change the world, you are exactly what the world needs.