Various gun safety and gun violence prevention groups gathered at the University of Hartford in West Hartford on Friday where President Joe Biden was the keynote speaker at the Safer Communities Summit.
By Ronni Newton, Bridget Bronsdon. Photos by Ronni Newton
The collective power of national groups working to curb violence was focused in West Hartford Friday, where the Safer Communities Summit served as a celebration of the first anniversary of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act as well as a call to action to continue the work that is far from done.
The summit brought together supporters of the BSCA – including not only Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who organized the summit, and fellow Sen. Richard Blumenthal, but also President Joe Biden, who signed the bill into law a year ago.
“Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, we all want our families to be safe,” Biden said during his keynote address Friday afternoon. The president said he meets lots of people who are scared to send their children to school, scared about shootings near their homes.
“One year ago, we did come together, we did hear the call for too many families,” Biden said, for something more than thoughts and prayers.
The BSCA includes $15 billion of funding – funding for 14,000 additional mental health professionals to work in the schools and for anti-violence groups – makes gun trafficking a federal crime, and closes the “boyfriend loophole” by preventing unmarried partners involved in domestic violence cases from legally purchasing guns.
“The bottom line is that if this law had been in effect a year ago it would have saved lives,” Biden said. “It is saving lives today. … It’s all because of you, I mean it,” he said, recognizing the local groups like Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action that were represented in the audience.
“You’re changing the culture, proving we can do more than just thoughts and prayers,” Biden said.
And Biden said most gun owners agree with him about the need for safe storage, and the banning of ghost guns that don’t have serial numbers.
“I believe we’ve reached a tipping point in this nation,” Biden said.
“I know,… a lot of you are tired … a lot of people are frustrated,” he said, but he said he will not give up. “I never will on this issue, never, never never,” he said.
Quoting Nelson Mandela, Biden said, “It always seems impossible until it gets done.”
“The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act would not have happened without Joe Biden,” said Murphy, who introduced the president. The NRA fought it “tooth and nail,” but the BSCA passed with bipartisan support.
“Joe Biden was fighting and beating the gun lobby before anyone else was,” said Murphy, referencing the first gun control bill that was passed 30 years ago.
A week after the school shooting in Uvalde, Biden told Murphy that “I care about this issue, so deeply,” he said, adding that he was willing to take any chance to get the BSCA passed.
Along with the high-profile attendees, organizers of grassroots organizations also came to the summit to listen, to meet like-minded people, and to invigorate their efforts.
Susan Schoenberger, a West Hartford resident, attended the summit. “I have a small ad hoc group that I’ve started to look at creative ways to change the messaging around the gun violence issue.” The group is not just local, she said, adding that she is excited to be part of this event and to keep the momentum going with the new group, which is using the hashtag #movetheline.
West Hartford resident Michelle Souza, a member of Progressive Women of Greater Hartford, also attended the summit, and joined the ad hoc group Schoenberger has formed, “because gun violence is so important to us as progressive women, and as citizens of the community,” she said.
“We’re trying to reframe the discussion about gun violence, to move the line about what guns are allowed because we are trying to save lives,” she said of Schoenberger’s efforts. “So that’s why we’re here.”
“Just the fact that we’re here 10 years later after Obama’s speech, after Sandy Hook, is very sad, that not much has changed so we need to make a difference and keep fighting,” added Schoenberger, who is now the communications director for the Hartford International University for Religion and Peace but was a member of the press corps covering the former president’s appearance at the University of Hartford in April 2013.
West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor, who also attended the summit, expressed her thanks to Sen. Murphy and President Biden for passage of the BSCA..
“It is saving lives,” said Cantor. “We need to acknowledge the success and the significant impact that this will make in our nation. This will be providing real investment in communities that have been most impacted by gun violence. But, we have much more work to do and need to keep up the movement on common sense gun legislation and enforcing laws that have been passed.”
Cantor often mentions mass shootings and incidents of gun violence when she opens Town Council meetings, and this year alone there have been more than 250 incidents in the United States where at least four people have been shot.
Having the summit held locally was important to Cantor. She noted that several of those personally impacted by Sandy Hook, where 20 first graders were murdered in their elementary school in 2012, were in the audience.
“What really says a lot is that we’ve [in West Hartford] been talking about gun violence for a long time and it hit Connecticut so intimately and so hard and in such a profound way; I think it pushed the importance of talking about this really into the forefront,” Cantor said. “We talk about the hard things, and we get together and discuss. We have a lot of people who have stepped into the discussion of ‘Why are we not doing more?’ and to be honest it’s pretty mind-boggling that we haven’t made more change,” she said.
“We cannot normalize this, this isn’t normal,” Cantor said.
“I want everybody to step in, and I saw one of our doctors here from Connecticut Children’s, I want to make sure that we’re engaging with law enforcement, we’re engaging with the medical community, because gun violence has mental health consequences and physical health consequences that impact our community, our society, it’s costing us enormous amounts of resources that we could spend on so many wonderful things but we can’t because we’re sick and we have to deal with this. I want that discussion, that sense of urgency, that sense of control that we can do things locally.”
“Every time you tell me it’s not about the guns – it’s about the guns. It’s about the guns,” said Gov. Ned Lamont, who along with Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin gave the opening remarks to launch the summit. Connecticut can lead by example by continuing to pass legislation toughening gun control, he said.
Alana Blum, a West Hartford resident and member of Moms Demand Action, is an advocate for even stronger laws, particularly to prevent domestic violence.
“If there’s a gun in the home a woman is 500% more likely to be killed by an abuser,” she said prior to the summit. “I think Connecticut probably has some of the best laws in the country, but we can always go farther and we can always really be in the lead for other states.”
State Rep. Kate Farrar of West Hartford was also in the audience Friday. “I think for Connecticut and the whole country, today is acknowledging how much of a difference we can make when we institute policies that are smart gun control,” she said.
“We’ve proven that in Connecticut, and this bipartisan bill is taking the steps to do that. So, it’s really meaningful that we can bring everyone together in a space that’s really shown its commitment to taking action.”
“We’re going to pass Ethan’s Law,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who participated in a panel on the “Post BSCA Federal Landscape” with his fellow Connecticut Sen. Murphy, Rep. and Lucy McBath (D-Georgia). “And I want to thank every single family member, every single victim of gun violence. You are the wind beneath our sails.”
Speaking during that same panel, Murphy said that if more guns made you safer, this country would be the safest place in the world. “Less guns lead to less crime, and that’s just irrefutable. We’ve got to do a better job telling that story.”
Blumenthal said that it’s hard to believe that gun manufacturers have immunity, and he gave a shout-out to the Sandy Hook families that sued Remington and used an exception in the law. “Well, that’s a good way to enforce responsibility and accountability,” he said, and since then eight states have adopted laws.
Blumenthal is pushing for repeal of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) and introducing an act for responsible marketing of guns.
Most important, he said, is enforcement. More funding should be given to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to those who are out on the street.
Murphy said during the panel that he’s optimistic, if the momentum can continue. Even in “ruby red” states, he said, there is strong support among the public for gun safety measures.
Those who were in sixth grade when their classmates were gunned down in Sandy Hook are now voting, said Blumenthal. “And they are going to be soon running for office.” He said he thinks we are on the cusp of change, particularly with respect to banning ghost guns, safe storage, and other measures where there is a chance for bipartisan agreement.
“This is a really powerful moment,” said Blumenthal. “I think we need to reach out beyond our comfort zones, our political comfort zones.”
“We need to get as close to universal background checks as possible,” said Murphy, who added that he thinks there are great things to come, groundbreaking, from the current administration.
“We have to deal with the root causes of the violence,” said McBath. And she also noted that red flag laws are tools to prevent not only homicide but also suicide. The change may be incremental, but the needle is moving forward, she said.
Cardona shares his thoughts
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona grew up in Connecticut and started his career as an elementary school teacher in Meriden, in the very same school he had attended as a child. He was a principal in Meriden when Sandy Hook happened, just 30 minutes away.
“I remember the panicked phone calls from parents asking, ‘What are you going to do to keep my child safe? … In the weeks after Sandy Hook I remember feeling powerless.”
If we care more about selling AR-15s than the lives of children, we’ve lost our way, said Cardona. “If we as people normalize the slaughter of innocent children, then we have bigger problems on our hands.”
Cardona said there have been 270 mass shootings this year alone.
“We no longer ask if it’s going to happen again, but when and where,” said Cardona. “A lock on a door is no match for an AR-15,” he said.
“We don’t pay teachers enough already, so I am sure as hell not going to stay quiet about fighting for their safety,” Cardona said, bringing the audience to their feet in unanimous agreement.
As for arming teachers, “You don’t trust them to pick out books for kids and now you want to put guns in their hands? C’mon man,” said Cardona with the audience again on their feet applauding.
“Let’s make sure we keep making noise, make sure they hear us,” he said.
Blumenthal shared some further remarks in his introduction of Gabby Giffords, whose life changed when she was shot in 2011 and seriously injured – and also when the children were shot at Sandy Hook.
“She didn’t feel a call to action because of what happened to her personally … it was 20 kids in a classroom in Connecticut.” Her connection with those families, “her compassion, was magic,” he said.
“Gabby Giffords is a hero because of who she is … what she’s done, and what she will continue to inspire us to do.”
In a brief speech at the summit, Giffords said, “I’ve struggled to speak, but I have not lost my voice.”
According to Giffords, “We are at a crossroads.”
Nelba Márquez-Greene stood on the stage where she graduated from college. The University of Hartford was where she met her husband, Jimmy Greene, who along with their son, Isaiah, also stood on stage. Their other child, Ana Grace, was one of the victims of Sandy Hook
“My identity is reduced to three words: ‘Sandy Hook Mom,’” said Márquez-Greene.
She spoke of playing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in the very space where Friday’s summit was held, and said her ode to joy today is seeing the fight against gun violence continue through legislation, and also seeing the community continue to support survivors.
“After every loss you still showed up,” she said. Everyone at the summit was there to unite in a common goal.
“Ending gun violence is a moral imperative and a winnable issue, Márquez-Greene said.
While the Lincoln Theater at UHart was enthusiastically united in their support for the speakers, a small number of protestors stood at the edge of the campus waving signs and voicing their opposition.
Several prominent Connecticut Republicans voiced their criticism in statements issued following the summit.
“Given the crime in our suburbs and the gun violence we’ve seen in our cities, including two shootings this week right here in Hartford, Connecticut is hardly the shining example for ‘gun safety and anti-crime legislation’ Governor Lamont advertised ahead of the President’s visit,” Connecticut House Minority Leader Vince Candelora (R-North Branford, Durham, East Haven and Guilford) said in an email. “If Connecticut is in contention to lead anything in this arena, it’s the race to implement the Democrat party’s national vision for normalizing criminal activity while squeezing law-abiding gun owners. For that, Democrats here get a head ruffle from President Biden, whose trip to Connecticut won’t do a single thing to improve public safety in our communities or anywhere else in the nation.”
Connecticut Republican Party Chairman Ben Proto said in an emailed statement that President Biden “is really coming to Connecticut to cheer-lead the trampling on of our citizens’ clear constitutional rights by a nearing tyrannical state government.”
Proto noted that the neighborhood where the summit was held was right around the corner from what he said was one of the “most dangerous” neighborhoods in the region. “So it begs the question, if Joe Biden and Ned Lamont really want to talk about gun violence why not hold this on a corner in the North End and tell the people who live there what they are doing to protect the residents who have been devastated by gun violence and crime? Joe Biden and Ned Lamont are completely out of touch with the real problems Hartford residents are facing,” Proto said in his email.
John Lyons contributed to this report.
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