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Terry Ciulla's picture

On February 15th, the day after seventeen lives were snuffed out in a matter of minutes in Parkland, I was still feeling numb, tearful, angry, and outraged. I thought about how it seems we cannot protect our children from gun violence, even in their schools, where they should be safely learning - not worrying for their safety. So I took action.


I called my local Congressman, Josh Gottheimer, who represents the New Jersey Fifth District. I asked his office what his stance is on gun reform, including the availability of military-style assault weapons of war such as AR-15s, and what measures he supports to prevent future mass shootings. Before the conversation ended, I mentioned to his staff that I would be attending a meeting with local organizations and community partners on the Second Amendment later that day. I hung up the phone, and didn’t think much of it.


The meeting was packed - over one hundred supporters showed up, as opposed to the usual twenty that come to these type of community meetings. As a MomsRising #KeepMarching leader in Northern New Jersey, I had recently partnered with gun reform groups in the area and had signed up weeks before. I was expecting just to see the usual faces, but was surprised and thrilled to find a line of parked cars when I arrived. The whole house was filled with women - and a few men, too - from various grassroots groups, including the local chapters of MomsDemandAction and Join Organize Lead Teach (“J.O.L.T.”) All attendees were moved by the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and were fed up with the same cycle of gun violence followed by inaction on gun policy.


We started off by hearing from one attendee who was brave enough to stand up and tell her tragic story of the loss of her seventeen year old son just last year. The day of the meeting would have been his eighteenth birthday. The year before, he had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Her ex-husband, a retired NYPD officer, had been under psychiatric care for the treatment of his PTSD from 9/11. He had been court-ordered to keep his handgun locked away, but the gun was readily accessible in his home when her son took his life. Following her son’s death, her ex-husband tried to apply for a license for two additional handguns, but was denied by the local police chiefs. He took the issue to court and after a long battle, was not only denied his new handguns, but his previous permits were revoked and he has been banned from any future firearm purchases as well. Though this ended up being a win for gun safety, my heart breaks for this woman, who had to endure these painful legal struggles after her incredible loss.


The conversation then moved to the issue of mental illness and domestic violence in the context of gun reform. Given the stigma around mental illness, the group agreed that if there are to be restrictions placed on those with “mental illnesses” to purchase firearms, then the term should be clarified so as not to further isolate and stigmatize those who suffer from certain psychological and neurological conditions. Several teachers in the room also brought up the debate around arming teachers - their response was a resounding NO. They are there to teach the kids in their classes, period.


Then, to my complete surprise, we had a special guest join us, fresh off the train from DC: none other than our district Congressman, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, and his staffers! I was impressed by his choice to come to this meeting, hear us, and prepare to take action. His compassion for the poor children who lost their lives from gun violence was so evident, especially as he has two young children of his own. He announced that he and his wife would be taking an active role in gun reform groups, and that while he wasn’t “too optimistic” about the current Congress taking legislative action to prevent gun violence, he still feels that it’s important to work across the aisle to find common ground on this critical issue.


I came away from this meeting feeling empowered, and as a grassroots activist, I see room for further action to effect change.  We need to double down and start showing up at town halls and Representatives’ offices to make our voices heard. We need to go to the state capitol in Trenton when gun bills are up for debate. We need to listen to and involve teachers, students, and law enforcement officials in our efforts to get assault weapons off streets and restrict the capacity of gun magazines. We need to ensure high school seniors are registering to vote in 2018 and in 2020 as their numbers will absolutely make a difference in changing who is shaping our laws.


I’m proud to be a grassroots leader in my community with #KeepMarching, and I look forward to working with my Circle and other local groups to change gun laws in New Jersey and beyond.


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