New Jersey has relatively strong laws when it comes to gun control. However, like every other state (other than, literally, Hawaii), we are not an island. That is why we must speak out about federal regulations that make our laws viable. I wrote this letter because I was unable to attend the public hearings held by the NJ SAFE Task Force this week. The hearings were held to allow NJ residents to voice their opinions about how NJ can address school safety as it relates to gun control, addiction, and mental health. What follows is my letter, give or take a few words.
Dear NJ SAFE Task Force,
I responded viscerally to the Newtown massacre, just as everyone I know did. It was a painfully clear example of how easy access to guns, poor judgment, mental health issues, and the gun culture in the United States of America can come together to destroy lives, families, towns. It shook the psyche of our country to its core. However, my request to you is not an emotional one. I ask you to consider the facts regarding what the task force is being asked to gather, specifically: The intersection of gun control, addiction, mental health, and school safety in New Jersey, and how we, as a state, can better address and prevent acts of violence in our society. I’m concerned that there have been aggressive and powerful voices working to divert the attention of the NJ SAFE Task Force from its mission. And I appreciate this chance to share my views on the subjects at hand.
As a teacher and dean for many years in the NYC school system, I have some direct experience with these issues. Schools are microcosms of the societies they serve. Children must – MUST – feel safe in order to learn. There have been recent studies completed about how stress affects children in both the long and short-term, and it’s never good. My concerns about the combination of issues the NJ SAFE Task Force has been mandated to research are two-fold. First, addiction and mental health are issues that are so multi-faceted and personal that there is no one way to approach them. They are often both symptoms as well as causes of actions taken by children and teenagers. Of course they need to be addressed. Of course we need to support our schools and religious organizations and community centers and social services and – often most importantly – families to better manage these issues. But in and of themselves, they are about safety of the individual, not the school community. 96 percent of violent crimes –murders, robberies, rapes, and aggravated assaults—are committed by people without any mental-health problems at all. In fact, those who are deemed mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence, rather than perpetrators of violence. Those who say otherwise are attempting to deflect attention and action from the real issue of gun access.
Gun control is something over which we can have a direct and meaningful effect. A child with a serious mental health issue will, in most cases, act inwardly. Depression and anxiety are more often something that harms the child feeling them, not those around the affected child. Making access to firearms easy, through family members, neighborhood residents, and loose trafficking of weapons across state lines creates a volatile situation for an entire society, including our school communities. We must halt this access. Stringent background checks with waiting periods, strong enforced penalties for interstate trafficking, and advocating for federal policies of the same that will allow New Jersey to maintain its laws effectively are where we must begin.
Some organizations have suggested that the solution is to hire security guards and to arm principals, teachers and other staff members. I must strongly urge you to reject this idea. The presence of armed staff will affect the comfort and safety of children in our educational institutions, and it will negatively impact the balance of power between students and the people on which they are meant to rely. I’m more than happy to elaborate on this in further communication, if you wish.
I ask you to remain focused on items over which our communities and government and citizens can have immediate control. Report back to Governor Christie findings that can have an impact worth more than a plaster that will soon split and chip away. Do not allow intimidation and angry, fearful voices to sway you from what is clear and true. We need to enforce the gun laws we already have. We need to punish those effectively when those laws are broken. And we need to close gaps involving purchases of guns and ammunition so that it makes a difference. Without easy, unrestrained access to guns, we can ensure that our children will forge into the future with hope and perseverance, not fear and anger.
Thank you for reading.
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