Young lobbyists urge passage of gun control bills

Young lobbyists urge passage of gun control bills

Teen task force meets with senators in Trenton

Darcy Schleifstein had a very personal reason for going to Trenton to lobby state legislators to enact stricter gun control laws: Her good friend, Alex Schachter, was one of the students killed by a gunman Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

“I went to camp with Alex every summer in New York, where he was in my group of friends,” said Darcy, a 16-year-old Randolph High School sophomore. 

Fourteen students and three staff members were fatally shot and 17 others were wounded in the Parkland shooting. Nineteen-year-old Nikolas Cruz was arrested shortly after fleeing the site and has confessed to the crime.

Darcy was among 11 students representing Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest N.J. who went to the state capital June 7 to implore members of the state Senate to support a package of seven bills designed to tighten gun regulations. 

The students, members of the Teen Task Force for Common Sense Gun Control of federation’s Community Relations Committee (CRC), stayed in the State House gallery to watch as the Senate voted, approving each of the seven pieces of legislation. All the bills had previously been adopted by the Assembly, with the exception of one banning “ghost guns” — those assembled with untraceable gun components — that still needs to go through the other house before it will be sent to the governor. The students were invited back to attend the expected June 13 signing, but could not attend because of school schedules.

Darcy recalled the confusion that day in February as friends desperately contacted each other with details of the shooting. At first, she told NJJN, “we thought Alex was okay. Then we thought he was in surgery. But then the next morning we found out he was one of those who didn’t make it. He was only 14….”

In Trenton, Darcy and the other teens confronted legislators directly to push them to move on gun reforms. “In Florida, my friend Alex Schachter died at the end of an AR-15,” she told them. “I don’t wonder if it’s going to happen at my school, but  when it’s going to happen.”

Wearing orange ribbons to signify their support for stronger gun control measures, the teens passed other people in the State House who were clearly there for the same reason, some wearing T-shirts proclaiming their advocacy for strengthening New Jersey’s gun laws — already among the strongest in the nation. 

The teens were accompanied by CRC director Linda Scherzer and federation chief planning officer Jessica Mehlman. Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, joined them in Trenton for the morning visits with the officials. 

They began the day meeting with Bill Castner, senior adviser to the governor on firearms (the press was barred from the meeting at Castner’s request). After their discussion, the group met with state Sen. Christopher Bateman (R-Dist. 16), and then with three other Republican senators — Tom Kean (Dist. 21), Anthony Bucco Sr. (Dist. 25), and Joe Pennacchio (Dist. 26) — together. NJJN was allowed into these meetings and sat with the Greater MetroWest delegation in the Senate gallery for the afternoon voting. 

Maya Mehlman, 16, a sophomore at Jonathan Dayton High School in Springfield, told Bateman that students have “a very real fear when they walk the halls or even go to the bathroom,” worrying that they could become the next victims of gun violence. Hannah Stepak, a 16-year-old Randolph High sophomore, said students at her school share that fear. “Every time I hear the fire alarm,” she told the senators, “I look around for a gun.” 

The bills included measures that would reduce the availability of armor-piercing bullets and magazine capacity, make it more difficult to obtain a permit to carry a handgun, expand background checks on private gun sales, and keep firearms out of the hands of people deemed a threat to themselves and others.

Bateman said he supported most of the bills under consideration and told the students, “No one should have to go to school and be in fear.”

Hannah later told NJJN that she joined the task force because “I want people to be safe, and right now school is a scary place.”

Caleb Levine, 14, an eighth-grader at Glenfield Middle School in Montclair, told the senators that suicide rates are on the rise across the country and that two-thirds of those who attempt to take their own lives with a gun are successful; most of those who use other means, he said, fail. Making it more difficult to obtain a firearm, he said, would allow more time “to get these people help and hopefully save their lives.” 

Montclair High School senior Ezra Rifkin, 18, delivered a strong argument in favor of one of the bills that calls for dropping the legal limit for firearm rounds in a magazine from 15 to 10: The Second Amendment doesn’t confer the right to put multiple magazines in a gun, said Ezra, who has volunteered making T-shirts for the National Association of Students Against Gun Violence.

The other three senators told the young lobbyists they agreed in general with the bills. Pennacchio, however, said he had reservations about the magazine limitation bill, telling the students a shooter could still tape two smaller magazines together to get a 20-round clip. 

But Darcy responded that there was a fallacy in that line of reasoning, noting that lives would still be saved if a gunman had to stop to reload after firing fewer bullets. The lawmaker and Darcy went back and forth on this, neither willing to cede the point.

Scherzer said the task force, which currently has six members, was formed following a February rally that drew 2,500 people to Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston to hear one of the survivors of the Parkland shooting. The members did not know each other previously, but came together because of the concern in their own schools and their recognition of the need for young people to advocate for the issue, said Scherzer. The Trenton event was open to other teens interested in getting involved. Task force members also marched with the federation contingent at the March 24 March for Our Lives rally in Newark to protest gun violence, which was sponsored by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. 

Scherzer said the task force will be getting involved with voter registration in an effort to support candidates who back strong gun control measures. Even though it was believed the bills would pass with strong bipartisan support, she said the group reached out to all Republican senators and were especially pleased about meeting with Bucco and Kean because they represent areas in the Greater MetroWest catchment region. 

Olivia Hirsch of South Orange, a 16-year-old sophomore at Columbia High School in Maplewood, said, “I was very happy to engage in all the discourse.” And even though she initially worried that there might not be sufficient support for the legislation, in the end she was relieved to see “all the bills get passed with bipartisan support.” 

Before leaving, Scherzer commended the students for their passion and willingness to stand up to elected officials and state their positions in a forceful yet respectful manner. 

“You were awesome,” she told them. “This is democracy in action. You showed a commitment to Jewish values that’s branded into your DNA to save lives.”

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