TOMS RIVER – Hundreds of outraged and exasperated community members gathered at Huddy Park last week as part of Ocean County’s March for Our Lives protest against gun violence.
A group of local high school students orchestrated the event, which included numerous guest speakers offering varied perspectives on the need for gun control.
“We see a lot of different strong views regarding gun policies,” shared Rachel Golini, 17, a junior at Central Regional High School. “Our generation has been the generation of school shootings – and we are left with a mess we must fix.”
Rachel pointed out she and her classmates started school the year a lone gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Since entering kindergarten, Rachel has learned how to hide in a classroom corner with the lights turned off.
While students go through the motions, too many worry they are preparing for the inevitable. They’d much prefer enjoying the carefree innocence of children rather than training to fend off a deadly gunman.
Meanwhile, the recent Uvalde shootings suggest that active shooter drills are not enough of a solution.
Irene Marousis, Central Regional High School’s principal, offered additional thoughts concerning the threat of mass shootings in schools.
“No teacher should have to be in a classroom and defend themselves against gun violence in their schools,” said Morousis. “No student should have to wake up going to school worried about what will happen to them that day and have that in the back of their minds. No parent or family member should have to wait for that dreaded phone call.”
“Those of us who are educators and students don’t talk about it,” Morousis continued. “It brings so deeply inside of us a feeling of fear and thinking of ‘What if we’re the next school?’”
Morousis said the morning after the Uvalde shooting, she was on bus duty and found she was watching bookbags and people’s hand movements. As an educator, she far preferred catching glimpses of the beautiful faces of her students coming into school.
“We should be able to be there to educate and support our students,” said Morousis. “Instead of academic programming and enrichment, my summer will be spent deciding what the next safety measure is we have to put in place. It’s just not fair.”
Like those who took to the streets during the 1960s on behalf of the civil rights movement, more and more young people feel they can only effectuate change by making their voices heard.
“I don’t think people understand the impact of the legislation we currently have for guns,” Rachel said. “Our movement is fighting right now for universal background checks. It’s time for politicians to put actual federal legislation into place. We need to prevent guns from getting into the hands of the wrong people.”
“We’re also demanding an end to the filibuster,” continued Rachel. “It’s making this whole movement a political game and not an actual matter of life and death.”
Robert Nivison, an Ocean County Vocational Technical School Performing Arts Academy student, added to Rachel’s concerns. He would like to see the sale of high capacity weapons banned as they appear to present the largest threat to him.
“Assault rifles and anything that’s automatic and can really take out a crowd is a problem.” Robert said. “That’s what most mass shooters use and could take out all of us.”
The group that gathered at Huddy Park represented an eclectic collection of people. Mothers with babies in strollers and baby boomers stood side by side with hand-written protest signs.
As one of her friends stood behind her with a placard bearing the names of the Uvalde casualties, Rachel’s voice quivered as she shared small tidbits about each of them. The victims all came alive for just a second – with tales of academic and athletic achievements and plans for the future. They were children and teachers who loved life itself and would be sadly missed by those who knew them, as well as a nation that would weep for their loss.
Tears formed in the eyes of onlookers as a woman stood before them and slowly beat 21 times on a drum – in solemn remembrance of each victim of the latest school shooting. The silence was deafening and poignant all at once.
Speaking on behalf of Congressman Andy Kim (D-3rd), Gabby Harnett, a constituent advocate, said there was a need to ensure that taking steps for gun safety is an expression of the freedom to support life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for every person in the country.
“We need to ensure lawful gun owners are free to exercise their rights,” shared Harnett. “We also need to give our youth the freedom to attend schools without fear of a mass shooting. That is a balance the Congressman believes we need to find because lives depend on it.”
“Reestablishing an assault weapon ban and increasing funding for community-based violence prevention will change the way we see self-protection and will make positive lasting change,” Harnett continued. “This week, Congressman Andy Kim voted for the final piece of legislation to reduce gun violence in America by instituting a federal red flag law.”
Glen Bradford, a local minister from Toms River, said he is both a gun owner and an advocate against school shootings. He likened the movement to lessen gun violence to the actions taken by Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“A lot of kids got hold of alcohol and started drinking and driving,” pointed out Bradford. “It took a while, but accidents decreased because we took action as a people.”
Bradford said that as individuals, it was important to recognize the signs of someone who is not mentally capable to have a handgun or rifle. He suggested that action should start at home.
“One of the things we can do is hire our veterans to be outside the schools,” Bradford said. “The issue is not raising the age or limiting the sale of assault rifles. The issue is not regulation after regulation – I am a law-abiding citizen and shouldn’t have to face restrictions.”
Someone shouted out to Bradford to remind him he was not a shooter. A couple of people unraveled a banner calling for outlawing particular weapons.
One protester requested that the protest organizers hand her the megaphone. Edith Fulton, a past president of the NJEA and a long-time teacher, had some things she wanted to make clear.
“If you look at the history of the Second Amendment, it was not originally stated to give guns to individuals,” said Fulton. “It was written by James Madison and only included militias.”
Fulton said that children in the schools deserve to be protected and that nobody should own an AR-15. She expressed her disappointment that Congressman Chris Smith (R-4th) voted in opposition to the latest federal gun control legislation.
After the speeches, protesters moved to the sidewalk in front of Huddy Park. Several cars beeped their horns in support of the signs asking for an end to gun violence.