Officials, leaders in Essex County call for stricter gun laws following massacre

Photo Courtesy of Sheena Collum
Like many other municipalities across the nation, South Orange flies its flag at half-staff in mourning for the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — The nation was again plunged into despair on May 24 when a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, injuring many others. This was the third-deadliest school shooting in a U.S. school, after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. The massacre in Uvalde came just 10 days after the mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., where the gunman was targeting people of color.

Following the school massacre, many officials spoke out, some in favor of commonsense gun restrictions and others in favor of arming teachers. 

One of the most poignant speakers was U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, whose speech on the Senate floor has been widely shared and quoted.

“Fourteen kids dead in an elementary school in Texas right now. What are we doing? What are we doing? Just days after a shooter walked into a grocery store to gun down African American patrons, we have another Sandy Hook on our hands. What are we doing? There were more mass shootings than days in the year. Our kids are living in fear every single time they set foot in the classroom, because they think they’re going to be next,” Murphy said to his fellow senators. “What are we doing? Why do you spend all this time running for the United States Senate? Why do you go through all the hassle of getting this job, of putting yourself in a position of authority, if your answer is that, as the slaughter increases, as our kids run for their lives, we do nothing.

“Sandy Hook will never ever be the same. This community in Texas will never ever be the same. Why? Why are we here if not to try to make sure that fewer schools and fewer communities go through what Sandy Hook has gone through. What Uvalde is going through. Our heart is breaking for these families. Every ounce of love and thoughts and prayers we can send we are sending, but I’m here on this floor to beg, to literally get down on my hands and knees and beg my colleagues: Find a path forward here. Work with us to find a way to pass laws that make this less likely,” Murphy, a Democrat, continued. “I understand my Republican colleagues will not agree to everything that I may support, but there is a common denominator that we can find. There is a place where we can achieve agreement. … It will not solve the problem of American violence by itself. But by doing something we at least stop sending this quiet message of endorsement to these killers whose brains are breaking, who see the highest levels of government doing nothing, shooting after shooting.”

Here in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy called for gun reform and for action.

“Thoughts and prayers are worthless. Action is the only thing of value,” the governor said in a May 26 statement. “Twelve days ago, we saw 10 innocent shoppers at a supermarket in Buffalo gunned down by a white supremacist. Two days ago, it was 19 beautiful schoolchildren and two educators shot to death in their elementary school classroom in Texas. Another day in America, another horrific act of gun violence enabled by the weak and feckless politicians kept in the holster of the gun lobby. As a father and as a human being, my heart is broken for the families who are reeling from this incomprehensible tragedy. As an American, I am outraged and I am exhausted.”

Specifically, Murphy is calling for laws that would mandate safe storage of guns; ensure that those seeking to buy a gun are trained in the safe handling of that gun; give police tools to better track the paths of firearms used to commit crimes; prohibit the sale of weapons that can bring down helicopters; and allow this country “to hold the gun industry liable for the carnage it has enabled.”

In response to the shooting, police departments across the nation increased security at schools.

“The safety of our state’s residents — including and especially our children — is my top priority,” acting N.J. Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin said in a May 24 statement. “Tonight, joined by New Jersey State Police Superintendent Col. (Patrick J.) Callahan, I spoke with law enforcement officers from across the state to ensure coordination in the aftermath of this tragedy. I also directed the New Jersey State Police and our 21 county prosecutors to increase law enforcement presence at schools throughout New Jersey effective immediately. The state police will increase their presence at the schools where troopers are the primary law enforcement. The county prosecutors will direct their municipal police departments to likewise increase law enforcement presence at schools throughout their jurisdictions.”

Platkin also expressed grief for the lives lost in Uvalde. 

“Nothing about this is normal. We do not have to accept that we live in a country where children are shot just for going to school. My heart goes out to the families of the victims, and we must all do everything we can to end the epidemic of gun violence,” he said. “Our students, their families and caregivers, teachers, and school administrators should feel safe in school and be assured that New Jersey’s law enforcement agencies will do everything in their power to protect them.”

In addition to increasing security, many school communities have provided counseling and discussion for students and teachers. 

“The senseless act of violence that occurred yesterday at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, stole the lives of 19 students, and I believe we all woke up this morning feeling more burdened and saddened at yet another school tragedy inflicted by gun violence,” South Orange–Maplewood Superintendent of Schools Ronald Taylor wrote to the community on May 25. “This morning resources and talking scripts were shared with our staff members, so that they are able to help students process this tragedy. In addition, our school social workers and counselors are on hand to offer support to students and staff who are struggling today and will be available to offer support in the coming days.”

The West Orange School District provided resources for parents and guardians to use while addressing the tragedy with children.

“As these heartbreaking events can cause stress, fear and concern for our youngest community members, I offer this list of resources and considerations to assist parents, guardians and caregivers in supporting their children. Click here: https://bit.ly/3yXR32y,” West Orange interim Superintendent of School C. Lauren Schoen wrote in a letter to the community.

Essex County Commissioner President Wayne L. Richardson expressed his sorrow for those who died and issued a call to action.

“We cannot allow our initial feelings of shock and sadness to be replaced by feelings of helplessness. We must make a collective decision, at all levels of society, to come together and do all we can to protect our children and our neighbors before they are tragically murdered, as opposed to remaining stagnant in our efforts to combat the epidemic of gun violence,” Richardson said. “It is my hope that, as American citizens, we accept the reality that this is an American problem. Easy access to guns, a lack of emphasis on mental health and our country’s original sin of racism are all contributing factors to these all-too-familiar mass shootings. In order to address the root cause of these tragedies, actionable measures such as an increase in the provision of mental health services, sensible gun regulations and the teaching of critical race theory to our children — in an effort to create a better understanding of the pervasive nature of racism — must be embraced. In order to heal our wounds, we must reveal our wounds. The actions we take now will directly influence the safety of our children, neighbors, our country and our future.”

Orange Mayor Dwayne Warren expressed similar sentiments, stating on May 27 that Orange is taking steps to ensure local safety. 

“While our thoughts and prayers are with the latest victims of gun violence, in Orange my administration is focused — more than ever — on your safety. Every department is prepared to help prevent a tragedy from taking place in our city,” Warren said. “Our plan of action to keep our seniors, families, and children safe from harm includes: a proactive approach by the Orange Police Department to protect our community, our schools and our city with a vigilant and rapid response approach to community safety; continuing to have constant communication and training between our police, our school system and our city officials; maintaining law enforcement visibility outside our schools every day; and ongoing training for police personnel in de-escalation, and tactical training if the need arises, including active shooter and hostage negotiation with a highly trained special response team.

“We will continue to do everything we can to prevent Orange from joining the list of cities that are suffering at the hands of sick, evil individuals who would murder our parents, neighbors and our children,” he continued. “To that end, I have directed the Orange Police Department to conduct a safety review of our public spaces, including our churches, our shopping outlets and our recreational facilities, to ensure that these venues are more secure.”

Bloomfield Mayor Michael Venezia took to Facebook the day after the attack to express his feelings.

“There is a lot to be said right now, and so much anger and frustration. But for now, I’ll say that my heart goes out to all who lost their children, and to the adults who lost their lives trying to protect them,” Venezia wrote. “As we’ve always had in the past but for the remainder of the school year we will have an increased directed patrol around all of our school buildings.”

Bloomfield also held a candlelight vigil on May 26 for the victims in Uvalde.

“South Orange Village has lowered its flags today to half-staff out of respect and love for the Texas elementary school shooting victims, their families and loved ones where at least 19 children and two (teachers) were tragically killed,” village President Sheena Collum wrote in a May 25 Facebook post. “I cannot help but think that these babies would be getting ready for school right now and would shortly stand at their desks, put their little hands on their hearts, and pledge allegiance to the flag — a symbol of our great country that has prioritized the gun lobby over their lives and safety.

“I’m feeling so sad and angry right now, and if that’s how you’re feeling, please know that it’s OK. Just don’t allow yourself to feel helpless, because we have a lot of work to do,” she continued. “Begging spineless GOP lawmakers won’t bring about change. We need to mobilize and fight with fury. For anyone and everyone who is ready to get to work — I stand with you.”

Maplewood Mayor Dean Dafis offered links to websites where residents can become involved in trying to have an impact on gun legislation: https://momsdemandaction.org/act/, https://marchforourlives.com/actions/ and https://giffords.org/take-action/.

“I won’t stop believing, I won’t stop trying, we can’t stop fighting for gun reform, safety, accountability, even as some of our elected leaders continue to fail and ignore us, even in the face of yet another preventable massacre, even while drowning in grief and hopelessness,” Dafis said. “We owe it to the innocent babies that were taken from us, we owe it to all of our youth, present and future. Even in New Jersey, with some of the toughest gun safety laws, we can do better.”

In the wake of such tragedy, many people turn to religion for comfort and advice.

“Cynically shortsighted solutions that facilely propose turning schools, grocery stores and shopping malls into armed camps must be rejected. This nation cannot flourish by permitting the unregulated sale of weapons designed to kill. There is no convincing argument to justify the sale or possession of automatic rifles, oversize magazines, folding stocks and other weapons that are used in an ever-growing number of massacres,” Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, archbishop of Newark, said in a May 25 press statement. “New laws alone will not change hearts. We need civil conversations around all the forms of violence that are tolerated, even celebrated in our culture. The role of social media, especially its indiscriminate use by young people, needs to be questioned. We adults must examine how our speech and slogans and our resignation and apathy contribute to violent death and the disintegration of our communities. There is much to do, but for now, let us recognize our connection with the grieving families and plead with God to heal their broken hearts.”

Rabbis Jesse Olitzky and Rachel Marder of Congregation Beth El in South Orange similarly called for action, saying that prayer is simply not enough.

“This keeps happening, and nothing is done to change the epidemic of gun violence in our country. We keep saying we have to do something, yet too many elected officials refuse to act. Legislators are guilty of idol worship, worshiping the assault rifle, and the golden calf of the gun lobby. Instead, many will simply offer ‘thoughts and prayers.’ We love prayer! Please join us and pray with us every Shabbat and daily at morning minyan. We believe that more opportunities for prayer, and for seeing the divine in each other, will bring about a more peaceful world,” the rabbis said. “But as activist and scholar Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, more than being a people of thought, we must be a people of action. Prayers are meaningless if one refuses to act and be God’s partner to make change. Twenty-three years after Columbine High School, 10 years after Sandy Hook Elementary School and four years after Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, there has been no reform in gun policies. How many Americans will be gunned down before our politicians act? We hug our children tighter and hold on to our loved ones a little longer, and anxiously await action that does not come.

“As a community, we will continue to mourn, comfort each other and pray, but our leaders who were elected to keep us safe can keep their thoughts and prayers. We demand action. And so does God. In Isaiah 22:4, God cries out: ‘Turn away from Me and let Me weep bitterly. Don’t try to comfort Me, for the destruction of My people.’ God cries alongside us but refuses comforting words alone in the face of preventable tragedy,” they continued, urging people to become involved with gun reform advocates, such as Sandy Hook Promise and Moms Demand Action. “May the memories of these innocent children, and their brave teachers who died trying to protect them, be for a blessing. And may our anger be a catalyst towards action.”

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