‘This is an emergency:’ Gun-control advocates rally in Trenton after mass shootings

Supporters of New Jersey Moms Demand Action rally at the Trenton War Memorial. (Emily Scott/WHYY)

Supporters of New Jersey Moms Demand Action rally at the Trenton War Memorial. (Emily Scott/WHYY)

Brett Sabo, the leader of New Jersey’s chapter of Moms Demand Action, was thinking recently about why the gun safety group settled on the color red for its t-shirts.

“I figured we are wearing red because this is an emergency,” said Sabo, referring to the countless mass shootings in the United States, most recently in Philadelphia, as well as El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

A sea of those red t-shirts filled the Trenton War Memorial steps on Sunday morning as roughly 100 Moms Demand Action supporters from across New Jersey called for congressional response to the continuing gun violence.

It was part of a larger weekend of action organized by the groups Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety, which hosted more than 100 “recess” rallies to pressure Congress — which is on break for the month of August — to enact what they call common-sense gun laws.

During the rally, Sabo said New Jersey has some of the strongest gun laws in the country — but that doesn’t make it immune to gun violence.

Between 2010 and 2016, 3,316 people died from “preventable” gun violence in New Jersey, according to a report from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, an advocacy group named for former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Of those deaths, 1,281 were from suicide. 

Additionally, New Jersey has an issue with illegal gun trafficking, with many of the guns involved in criminal acts coming from outside the state, according to state statistics. In the first quarter of 2019, 83% of the guns used in crimes recovered in the state were purchased outside New Jersey.

Sabo also reminded attendees at Sunday’s rally that two of the victims in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting were from New Jersey.

“We are one nation and we are all affected,” she said. 

Photos of gun violence victims hang at the Trenton War Memorial. (Emily Scott/WHYY)

Other speakers included Democratic Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, who represents the state’s 12th congressional district.

For Watson Coleman, the lack of action on the federal level is personal.

“I am a grandmother. I have a 6-year-old precious, perfect granddaughter,” she said. “And she’s learning how to deal with the prospects of a dangerous person, an active shooter. I resent that.” 

She called on people to call her office and as many other legislators’ offices as possible to get Congress moving on the numerous gun safety bills waiting to be voted on.

Bill Castner, Gov. Murphy’s gun violence advisor, said that since the governor took office in 2018, he’s signed several bills to strengthen gun safety – including a reduction on high magazine clips, a “red flag” law, and an anti-gun trafficking law.

But he said there’s more work to do. There are pending bills to regulate ammunition, to introduce safe storage, and to mandate gun safety training. 

“The needle is moving. The pendulum is swinging,” Castner said. 

Castner said he recognized that the lack of action may be disheartening, but to him, there are signs of hope.

“The reason I know we are winning is because when I show up to a committee vote on some of these common-sense gun violence prevention laws, there’s more red shirts in those buildings than a Rutgers home game,” Castner said. “We’re winning because there’s Republicans in Morris County and Union County talking about gun violence prevention.”

Kellie Cors of Atlantic City traveled to Trenton in honor of her son, Todd Mitchell, who died from gun violence when he was 13 years old in 2012. She said the recent mass shootings have reopened her wounds.

Kellie Cors of Atlantic City at the Moms Demand Action rally in Trenton. (Emily Scott/WHYY)

“It’s heartbreaking,” Cors said. “It’s like it opens a whole can of worms all over again. It’s been six years since the death of my son and every time something tragic like this happens, it brings back like it was yesterday.”

Other speakers at Saturday’s rally included Congressman Frank Pallone, Glenda Torres, a gun violence survivor and fellow with Everytown for Gun Safety, and Jai Patel, a student at Rutgers University and a national youth advisor for Students Demand Action.

U.S. Senator for New Jersey and Democratic Presidential Candidate Cory Booker was invited to attend the rally, but wasn’t able to make it. Charles Barker, who works on Booker’s state staff as a constituent advocate, read a letter the former Newark mayor wrote in solidarity with Moms Demand Action.

“I will not mince words, this is a moral moment for our nation,” Barker read from the letter. “People are dying at epidemic levels from gun violence in this country and we already know what we can do to help address this problem. Let us come together and meet this crisis with sound policy instead of silent inaction.”

Just about an hour away, President Donald Trump was spending time at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster — a fact that was not lost on those who attended the rally in Trenton.

“Right now, he’s golfing and you’re fighting,” said Patel. “It’s unacceptable.”

Another local recess rally was held Sunday at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral in University City.

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