By ERIN ROLL
Three recent mass shootings Texas, Ohio and California are having a resonating effect in Montclair, including among residents advocating for stricter gun control measures and those attempting to memorialize those lost to gun violence.
Twenty-two people died as a result of the shooting at a Walmart in El Paso on Aug. 3. Less than 24 hours after the El Paso shooting, nine people died in a shooting at a nightclub in Dayton, Ohio. A week earlier a shooting at a food festival in Gilroy, California, left three people dead.
Essex County Moms Demand Action, which was recently honored by the township council during a June 25 meeting when officials passed a resolution recognizing National Gun Violence Awareness Day and Wear Orange Day, have vowed to fight for stricter federal gun laws. In all three shootings, the gunmen used semi-automatic weapons and all were obtained legally.
The group wore orange in honor of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old Chicago girl who died in a shooting in a park in 2013. Wear Orange Day calls for people to wear orange to recognize victims and survivors of gun violence, and to urge lawmakers to take action on stricter gun laws.
When Montclair resident and Moms Demand Action member Kerry Youmans was in college, she was abducted at gunpoint by a man who had just killed a police officer. She was held captive for 10 hours before a SWAT team rescued her. Her abductor had acquired his weapon illegally.
Both Pendleton and Youmans, and all the recent victims, were going about their everyday lives when they became victims.
Youmans has since moved on advocating for gun violence victims and stricter gun laws, but is “triggered” whenever she reads about another mass shooting.
“It brings back a lot of the trauma and horrible things that I went through,” said Youmans.
Moms Demand Action conducts gun safety talks in Montclair’s elementary schools, and is hoping next year to expand the programs to the three middle schools and Montclair High School.
They also are working on a project to educate parents on how to broach other parents to inquire if there’s a gun in the house before agreeing to playdates.
“There’s so many communities dealing with gun violence on a regular basis, and we need to get [the discussion] front and center,” she added.
But she said, with the most recent shootings, as with all the incidents, she attempts to protect her twin sons from all the media and “I try not to talk too much about the mass shootings [with them], because I don’t want to give them anxiety.”
Parents tend to worry about school shootings more than their children do, said Jamie Howard, PhD, director of the Trauma and Resilience Service at the Child Mind Institute. But, she warns, kids are very good at picking up on the fears of their parents. And as children grow into teenagers, they are more apt to feel anxiety.
Montclair schools holds active shooter drills once a month, in which officials don’t mention shootings to the kids. Instead, they tell students that it’s what they need to do in case a bear wanders onto school property, Youmans said. “I never grew up like this. For me, it’s so tragic that they have these drills.”
But a project underway commemorates a mass shooting that happened here 24 years ago and is a reminder to residents of how the sense of suburban safety is often taken for granted. A group of high school students are planning to update murals memorializing the 1995 shooting at a Watchung Plaza post office which left four people dead. A year after the shooting, local artist David Kaplan painted murals under each side side of the trestle bridge on Chestnut Street honoring the victims and all those affected by gun violence. The shooting, committed by former postal worker Christopher Green who is currently serving a life sentence, was driven by debt, said law enforcement. Since that time, the murals have become faded and chipped.
The students have committed to redoing the murals — one will be a memorial to all people affected by gun violence since the mural was first painted, the other is intended to raise awareness about mental health issues.
Moms Demand Action wants to see every state require background checks for gun purchases.
“We need to change our gun laws, immediately. We should have done this 25 years ago,” said Jaime Bedrin, one of the local leaders of Moms Demand Action in Essex County.
Although New Jersey has string gun laws state-level gun, stricter federal gun laws are badly needed, she said. “Nobody wants to live like this, in fear,” Bedrin said. “There’s way too much gun violence every day. We hope our lawmakers listen to their constituents, or else we’re going to vote them out.”
Moms Demand Action will have its next local meeting on Sept. 16, with the location to be determined. For more information, email email@example.com.