An estimated 5,500 protestors flocked to Hartford on Thursday, Feb. 14 to show their support for the enactment of stricter gun control legislation. The event, called the March for Change, was organized by Fairfield, Conn. residents Nancy Lefkowitz and Meg Staunton. The March was designed to be a grassroots offshoot of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, which has been advocating stricter gun control laws in Connecticut since 1993.
The Valentine’s Day protest also marked the two-month anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. Protestors stood outside in the snow, wearing green ribbons and hats that were distributed at the event to show solidarity with the victims of the Newtown massacre. Signs held in the air read, “Ban Assault Weapons,” “Keep our Children Safe,” and “Arms are for Hugs.” Protestors against stricter gun laws were also present at the periphery of the event and congregated in a small group to protest the March.
Protestant Chaplain Reverend Tracey Mehr-Muska heard about the event and reached out to Interfaith Justice League Leader Em Kianka ’13, Wesleyan Student Assembly President Zachary Malter ’13, and former President of the Wesleyan Democrats Michael Linden ’15. Together they worked together to get students involved in publicizing and planning the transportation of over 30 students to the event.
“I have a four-year-old and a five-year-old at home, so the Newtown situation really affected me,” Mehr-Muska said. “In hindsight, I’m mad at myself for not learning about [gun violence] sooner. After looking at statistics of groups that have been disproportionately affected, it has been kind of easy for me to ignore it. Now I have been motivated to take a more active role.”
Kianka extolled the importance of student protest and efforts to enact change.
“I don’t think theory and activism are incompatible,” Kianka said. “I think that a lot of the time, mainstream activist movements will be problematic in a way you can analyze from a theoretical perspective. But I think those things go together and that analyzing the two is what students should be doing.”
Anna Cocuzzo ’16, who helped publicize the event, also commented on the importance of student involvement in protest efforts.
“I think that a lot of us are looking for something to rally around,” Cocuzzo said. “Being at this school, we feel that we should be politically and socially active about things we care about—not only given the events in Newtown, but also violence that happens every day, which gets ignored.”
The March for Change was a call to action for gun-violence prevention legislation in state Congress. Though no bill currently exists for protestors to rally around, the support shown at the March was intended to influence a bipartisan legislative committee that is due to present a platform of regulations at the end of the month to the General Assembly.
Speakers included state politicians, religious figures, and residents whose lives were affected by gun violence. Each of the speakers advocated for a platform of what they called “common sense” gun control legislation, including support for universal background checks on all gun sales and transfers, a strengthened assault weapons ban, and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Politicians speaking at the event included Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy, members of his administration and the state Senate, and Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch. The governor has been a longtime advocate of stricter gun control legislation in the state and campaigned on a platform of reducing illegal gun activity when he ran for re-election in 2010. Earlier this month, Malloy created a state senatorial commission to examine gun laws in Connecticut.
“If you can’t be getting on a plane without getting a background check, you shouldn’t be getting a gun without a background check,” Malloy said.
Leader of Connecticut Against Gun Violence Ron Pinciaro also spoke in favor of changes to current gun laws. While he agreed that pertinent action is necessary for change, he reminded the protestors that gun violence has been a problem in Connecticut long before the Newtown massacre.
“Let us not forget the urban violence that is happening every day in our cities,” Pinciaro said. “This is a handgun problem, and we have a gun problem, and that is why we want registration for handguns and annual renewal of that registration.”
Families of gun violence victims also took to the stage to share their stories, and were met with support from the crowd. First to speak was Jillian Soto, younger sister of Victoria Soto, a 27-year-old teacher who was shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School while protecting her students. Soto told the crowd of her sister’s kindness, humor, and love for teaching, and of Soto’s personal struggle to understand this tragedy.
“After learning about this school shooting and hearing about my sister, I’m asking you to take a moment and think about the five most important people to you,” she said. “Now what would you do if one of those people was taken from you, not because they were sick, but because they were murdered? What would you do? How would you feel? What if you wrote those five names down on a piece of paper, handed it to me, and I crossed one of them out? How would that impact you?”
Democratic State Senate Leader Don Williams and Republican State Senator John McKinney spoke next as co-leaders of the state’s bipartisan task force on gun control legislation. Williams’ speech called for advocates of “common sense” gun control legislation to reach out to their elected officials and demand that the state Congress enact change. The crowd cheered unanimously in support of his ideas.
McKinney’s speech, which followed Williams’, began with a list of reasons why he feels lucky, even in the wake of this tragedy, and discussed the difficulty that representatives in Washington face while attempting to settle on fair legislation. The crowd angrily interrupted his speech, chanting “Pass the law!” and “We want change!”
According to several students, the March had a profound impact on them.
“I initially came here for an assignment, but after seeing the crowd come out in this weather and in this cold, and the speakers saying what they had to say, and the crowd’s reaction to that—it was moving,” said Shyle Mehta ’16. “Sincerely, it’s great that in this state, people see something that they want to change and they do something about it.”