The digital-first, student-run magazine of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Journalism Department

Gun regulations trigger emotion and debate

Opponents and supporters of guns demand action.

March 30, 2016

NEWTOWN, CONN. — Abbey Clements gathered her second grade students, trying her best to distract them from the horror occurring down the hallway.

“I knew that they were listening, because they heard all 154 shots coming through the loudspeaker,” she said. “It was hell.”

Clements and her students safely made it out of the school and waited in the firehouse the morning of the shooting. Many sat around waiting to be reunited with their families, unsure of what exactly had happened.

“We watched it unfold,” said Clements. “You couldn’t even wrap your head around the fact that there was a person with a gun killing kids in a school.”

She recalled asking her husband, “It’s really bad, isn’t it?” But she had immediately cut him off, because she didn’t want to know.

Clements survived the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, when a gunman entered the school and killed 20 children and six adults. She has been a teacher for 24 years, and 11 of those years have been at Sandy Hook. Clements said she never expected to find herself running away from the school.

Over two years after the shooting, sitting in a coffee shop just a half-mile away from her former school, Clements said she has not been able to return to the scene of the massacre. Some of her colleagues have returned to remember those lost that day. She shook her head at the thought, visibly uncomfortable, and said she has not been emotionally able to do so.

In the days following the shooting, she became physically sick and struggled to come to terms with what happened, she said, adding that she wasn’t eating and felt emotionally exhausted after attending the wakes of the victims.

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It was grief and trauma that gave life to her mission to save others from experiencing something similar.

“It changed who I was,” said Clements. “We have a serious problem in our hands with gun violence in the country, and I know I want to be part of that change.”

Gun Violence Archive is an “online archive of gun violence incidents collected from over 1,500 media, law enforcement, government and commercial sources daily in an effort to provide near-real time data about the results of gun violence.” As of today, the site has reported 6,207 people injured and 3,088 killed due to gun violence in the United States. Of the 12,086 gun-involved incidents, 56 have been mass shootings; a mass shooting is defined as “four or more shot and/or killed in a single event [incident], at the same general time and location… not including the shooter.”

Numbers like these motivated Clements to become an active member in Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. The two organizations are grassroots movements that aim to end gun violence by advocating for stronger gun laws and running multifaceted campaigns.

One of those recent campaigns, Groceries, Not Guns, asked grocery stores to prohibit the open carrying of weapons in their stores.

Clements, a mother of two, said Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America takes a motherly approach in attracting the attention of congressmen. Members specifically target those who, Clements said, are afraid of getting a ‘F’ rating from the National Rifle Association.

Clements’s daughter, Sarah, 20, has also dedicated herself to the prevention of gun violence, and has been selected a Champion of Change by the White House. The two were invited guests in January when President Obama announced his Executive Orders. Surrounded by other victims and survivors of gun violence, they stood in the East Room with “a surreal sadness as to why you were there,” Clements said.

* * *

On Jan. 5, President Obama introduced Executive Orders aimed at reducing gun violence. Still, gun advocates have said the President is misguided on the issue and argue that limitations on gun ownership will not effectively prevent gun violence.

945570_1033533603364229_848629092325776463_nWhile they did not introduce any new regulations, the Orders were designed with the goals of:

  1. Keeping guns out of the wrong hands through background checks
  2. Making communities safer
  3. Increasing mental health treatment and reporting to the background check system
  4. Shaping the future of gun safety technology

The President made it clear that no matter where or how you conduct your business, “you must get a license and conduct background checks.”

Referring to the 20 children killed at Sandy Hook in 2012, the President wiped away tears. At that moment, cameras flashed and the crying of audience members was all that could be heard.

Clements called it “an incredible moment [she’ll] never forget,” noting she was comforted by others in the audience who understood the impact of gun violence.

Following the announcement, Clements and her daughter had a brief moment to speak with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. She thanked them for their work, she said.

* * *

Kasey Smart remembered growing up while his father’s side of the family was active in the military. Naturally, he said, it sparked his interest in firearms.

Smart, a mechanical engineering student from Shrewsbury, Mass., is the president of the Gun Club at UMass. He is working to fulfill the group’s mission to advocate for guns, gun rights and gun safety.

Smart said he feels that the President’s orders were empty words that will not prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands. He suggested that the President include charges against those who commit gun violations and the removal of gun-free zones as a more effective deterrent to gun violence.

“I believe there’s a lot of misguidance on the issue,” said Smart. “They don’t address it as a health issue or as an issue of security, but as a gun issue.”

Gun vendors share similar feelings. Terry Good, based out of North Chelmsford, Mass., has been in the gun business since 1968 and said he has seen a large increase in gun sales.

“People are afraid of what’s going on in the country. They’re afraid the President is going to take away their guns,” Good said.

Springfield-based gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson said on March 3 that its third quarter net sales were $210.8 million, up 61.5 percent from the same time last year.

James Debney, the company’s president and chief executive officer, said in a statement: “During the third quarter, the Adjusted National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) data, which serves as an indicator of consumer purchases, reported a significant increase in growth versus the prior year, especially in handguns.”

While every state has its own regulations for the purchase of guns, background checks are required by federal law.

In Massachusetts, a firearm buyer must first provide their ID to gun show vendors, who then call the FBI to run a quick background check. If the potential buyer is cleared, the FBI gives a number to the dealer who then records it on the federal form. Unless the buyer carries a permit, the individual can only purchase long guns. Otherwise, the buyer is only able to acquire handguns.

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Vendors at the Gun and Knife Show at the Eastern States Exposition said background checks take between five to seven minutes. They believe the system in place is sufficient enough to eliminate those unsafe to own guns.

David Bordeau, a gun seller since 2008 based in Brookfield, Mass., said he has seen background checks work effectively. On an annual basis he has denied anywhere between six to eight potential buyers because of background check results. Noting Massachusetts gun laws, Bordeau said what’s missing is “greater communication between the state and federal government to make sure the system in place works even better.”

According to a recent New York Times article, “the most visible sign of the President’s initiative to license more gun dealers is the printing of 10,000 pamphlets clarifying what qualifies a gun seller as a dealer.”

Officials planned to distribute the pamphlets at gun shows and at weekend flea markets, though Newman Chittenden, promoter for Northeast Gun Shows at the Eastern States Exposition, said he has not seen any pamphlets. Gun vendors agreed, and said they are unaware of the availability of the pamphlets.

Bordeau said he is certain that the President’s Executive Orders will not combat the issue, and that first and foremost the nation must correctly tackle the mental health aspect of gun safety.

“If they’re just putting more barriers, I would call it feel-good legislation to maybe give the people the feeling that they’re making them more safe,” said Bordeau. “But I have no problem with spending my tax dollars to make sure that bad people don’t get firearms. That’s a good thing.”

* * *

Noting that the President is limited because of Congress, Clements said the Orders act as another peg toward better understanding on how to keep America safe.

Clements, now working as a fourth grade teacher at a different school in Newtown, Conn., said news coverage of mass shootings, like the attack in San Bernardino, Calif., brings back the feelings she experienced after Sandy Hook. She knows all too well, she said, the road to recovery awaiting those affected.

Email James at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jamesv_news.

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