March for Our Lives protest at the Detroit River Downtown, 2018

After Parkland, teens are leading in advocating for sensible gun control legislation.

By Stacy Gittleman

It’s happened again.

Six months to the day when a white supremacist gunman stormed the sanctuary of Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, another attack shattered the calm of Shabbat in the Chabad Center of Poway, California, April 27 at the conclusion of Passover.

It’s been 15 months since the Parkland shooting. If the past is a predictor, the news cycle will move on as it did for Parkland, and San Diego, and Pittsburgh. The shock of the latest mass shooting will ease over time.

But a flurry of grassroots activism from local Jewish organizations like the National Council of Jewish Women, Greater Michigan Section, and the Joint Action Committee for Public Affairs (JAC ii) drives home the fact that after the initial sting of the latest shooting wears off, the public should keep paying attention to the day-to-day politics and the long-term efforts of passing common-sense gun control legislation even if the media is not.

This spring, NCJW held a public service announcement (PSA) contest on the issue, asking high school students to create succinct, powerful messages on the urgent need for sensible gun control legislation. Finalists — area students Sydney Stearns, Sarah Chynoweth and Madison Strachan — won monetary scholarships that topped $1,000.

The awards were presented at an April 15 NCJW event at the Farmington Public Library that included speakers Jeff Kasky, father of two Parkland shooting survivors, as well as Linda Brundage, executive director of Michigan Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence.

PSA Finalist Sarah Chynoweth, a senior at North Farmington High School, said hatred, combined with access to guns, prompted her to become more vocal and active with the goal that elected officials will pay attention and eventually pass stricter gun control laws.

Chynoweth, who said her Jewish values were shaped by her involvement in BBYO and the Friendship Circle as well as being a lifelong member at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, wanted to create a PSA to allow a diverse group of peers, who will soon be voting age, speak their minds about the importance of reforming gun laws to stem the tide of shootings and violence. She hopes to study criminology and psychology at Michigan State University in the fall.

Since the shooting in Poway, Chynoweth said she has been cycling through emotions such as anger and heartbreak and a “bleak sense of pride” knowing the rabbi tried to dissuade the shooter by talking to and reasoning with him before he himself was shot in the hands. Even that weekend, she overheard someone muttering hateful things about Jews at a grocery store.

“A shooting on the last day of Passover is the culmination of Jewish people celebrating our freedom,” she said. “But the truth is that we were never fully free. Chained by anti-Semitism and labeled as different, Jews have always been the scapegoat.

“The person who took an AR-15-like weapon and shot four people for no other reason than them being Jewish isn’t just a shooter; he is an anti-Semite. He went into the synagogue yelling anti-Semitic slurs. I’ve never been in an active shooter situation. But people like the shooter are the reason why I am apprehensive to answer the question asked by so many people: ‘Are you Jewish?’ Hate fuels hate. When I heard an anti-Semitic joke said by someone the morning after the shooting, it wasn’t the first time and probably won’t be the last.”

First-place winner Madison Strachan, a junior at Troy Athens High School, wanted to communicate that guns were just as accessible and tempting to children as candy. She created a jarring PSA with the help of her film teacher.

The bang of the gun in the final frame is intended to make viewers jump.

The PSA opens with a young girl hopping up on a barstool to eagerly inspect a colorful jar of candy. Strachan’s voice narrates with a dull drone of some grim statistics about gun ownership in U.S. households with young children.

… 4.6 million children in the United States live in a house with an unlocked firearm.
… 73 percent ages 9 and under know where it is located.
… 36 percent admitted they handled the weapon.

As the child unwraps the candy, there is the bang of a gunshot and the screen goes dark.

In our society, children under age 18 take the brunt of gun-related deaths. Between 1999 and 2016, 26,000 children under age 18 have been killed by guns, according to 2017 mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But, until they are voting age, they’ve had little to no voice in the political process that can pass laws to stem the tide.

Then Parkland happened.

Taking the lead from the mass shooting survivors at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February 2018, thousands of students around the nation mobilized the March for Our Lives movement, warning politicians they soon will be of voting age. If they don’t change laws that can prevent gun violence, they will be voted out, movement members say.

“If your gun is obtainable, a kid will be able to find it,” Strachan said after receiving her award. “Film is a way to express yourself and tell a story. When you are a high schooler and you hear on the news how many mass shootings there are, it’s always in the back of your mind if your school will be next.”

Kasky’s Story

Jeff Kasky has been a formidable advocate for sensible gun control reform long before he was one of the hundreds of parents who waited, terrified to hear from their children who were inside Marjorie Stoneman Douglas on that horrific day in February 2018. His two sons survived the shooting, and his oldest, Cameron, went on to create the March for our Lives movement.

Kasky, an attorney and a law enforcement officer, is himself a gun owner. He says he likes to go to a shooting range as a hobby and finds cleaning his gun “relaxing.”

But he is at odds with the long-reaching influence of the National Rifle Association blocking the existence of international background checks (he says that won’t happen until there is a digitized CDC gun owner registry). He believes that assault rifles used by the military have no business being in the hands of civilians.

Kasky is president of the Families vs. Assault Rifles political action committee. He watched Cameron and other Parkland survivors take action in the name of common-sense gun regulations. Kasky started the PAC so he and other Marjorie Stoneman Douglas parents could do their part and join this important effort.

He was proud of his son for standing his ground with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at a CNN town hall meeting after the Parkland shooting.

“(CNN) producers wanted to clear every question my son and others were asking, but when Cameron took that microphone, I knew history was being made,” Kasky said.

According to CNN, Cameron’s question was “Can you tell me right now that you will not accept another single donation from the NRA?”

Rubio did not answer the question directly, but said, “The position I hold on these issues of the Second Amendment are positions I’ve held since the day I entered office in West Miami as an elected official.

People buy into my agenda, and I do support the Second Amendment.”

Kasky said, “It didn’t matter that my son was a teenager and Rubio was a politician. Politicians must give teens like my son their due respect.”

He urged those at the NCJW event to make donations to his organization if they could, to get active if they want to see change and, most of all, to get out and vote.

“For those who hear about tragedies and say, ‘That’s terrible, what can we do?’ and then just turn away, they need to be part of the solution,” Kasky said. “They need to get active, pound the pavement and take their lumps swatting death threats just like I and my son have. We could not do this work to make change without a multitude of volunteers and donors.”

State Action

JAC ii in April held a parlor meeting with about 20 young adults in attendance and invited State Reps. Mari Manoogian and Robert Wittenberg (who is affiliated with Temple Emanu-El and Temple Israel) to discuss the progress and challenges of getting gun violence prevention legislation to the floor in Lansing.

Legislators in the Michigan State House and Senate re-introduced bills this year that promote common sense gun laws. Wittenberg, co-founder and chair of the Gun Violence Prevention Caucus in the Michigan House, this year proposed “Red Flag” laws (keeping guns out of the hands of people who pose an extreme risk), finding more money for local gun-buy-back days, implementing universal background checks and ending the prohibition on gun violence research.

Wittenberg began serving in the State House in 2015 and formed the caucus with Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo) in 2016. Now in his last term in office, he hopes to pass the torch to his colleague Manoogian.

“After the Sandy Hook shooting, I wondered, what does it have to take to get common sense gun violence prevention legislation passed?” Wittenberg posed at a JAC ii gathering.

On April 30, he said the Poway murder and mass shooting gives him further reason to push forward on his attempts to make changes to the state’s policies on gun control. He also acknowledged that no law, including California’s own Red Flag law, enacted in 2014, will stop all gun-related deaths.

“We know policy change is not the end all be all and will not stop all gun violence,” Wittenberg said. “But there are multiple proven methods in other states that show there is reduced gun violence when common sense gun control laws are in place … We need not wait for the next tragedy to act. We should be [passing gun control legislation] because it is the right thing to do.”

Wittenberg pointed to State Attorney General Dana Nessel’s efforts to get funding for her new Hate Crimes Unit off the ground, which is getting pushback in state senate hearings from Lansing Republicans, Wittenberg said.

He says 2019 is far different from 2015. Although gun violence control legislation squarely sits in the Democratic camp, Wittenberg has been told privately by Republican colleagues that they would vote in support of Red Flag legislation if it came to a hearing on the State House floor. However, getting the legislation to the floor is an uphill battle because the state speaker of the House controls what gets heard and debated.

Currently, that post is held by Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), also serving his final term in office. Last July, he was stopped boarding a plane in a small northern Michigan airport with a loaded and unregistered handgun in his carry-on bag during a pre-flight screening. In January, Chatfield paid a $1,960 fine to the federal Transportation Security Administration.

Some Republicans have expressed concerns about gun owners’ rights of due process in any Red Flag laws.

According to Michigan’s proposed legislation, a judge must grant a request before any weapons can be seized. Wittenberg said he worked alongside Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, a former Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, who recommended that penalties for presenting false evidence be treated the same as filing a false police report.

“Given this fact, it makes sense to pass legislation to intervene for those who are a danger to themselves and others,” said Bouchard last year when Wittenberg introduced the bills.

Rep. Ryan Berman (a Temple Israel member), Republican in the 39th District, said he agrees, in general, that individuals who pose a clear threat to themselves or others should not possess firearms for the safety of the community. However, he does not think the legislation, as currently written, is the best route to achieve this goal.

“We must protect the Second Amendment rights of all law-abiding citizens to own and use firearms, but it is also important to prevent acts of violence,” Berman said. “My focus is on the real root cause of this issue, which is our broken mental health system. We should remain committed to finding solutions that improve the health and safety of our state.”

Since the Parkland shooting, nine states — including Florida — passed Red Flag laws allowing police or household members to seek court orders requiring people deemed threatening to temporarily surrender their guns. Fourteen states now have Red Flag laws.

As Michigan laws stand now, law enforcement cannot take away someone’s weapons until a crime has been committed.

There were 1,223 gun deaths in Michigan in 2016, which is the highest since 1999, when the CDC began posting data on its website. Almost 60 percent of the deaths were suicides.

While progress on gun control legislation is slow at the federal level, Wittenberg and Manoogian are encouraged there is some traction and a swaying of public opinion as these laws get passed by the states.

Wittenberg added that because the NRA spends more money lobbying federal rather than state legislators, there is a bigger chance of “moving the needle” in places like Lansing over Washington.

“The needle is moving slowly, but it is moving,” he said.

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