Students, teachers, advocates, and elected officials rally in WNY to end gun violence

The event was held by Sens. Menendez and Booker ahead of their return to Washington, D.C.

U.S. Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, both Democrats from New Jersey, led a rally against gun violence in Hudson County on June 2.

The senators are seeking strong federal gun legislation following the recent mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, Uvalde, Texas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Menendez and Booker joined with students, gun safety advocates, and elected officials as they rallied at Memorial High School in West New York, calling on their senate colleagues to support a ban on “military-grade weapons” in addition to “comprehensive background checks.”

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According to the Gun Violence Archive, in 2022, at least 653 children and teens in the U.S. have been killed by guns. Another 1,609 children and teens have been injured by firearms.

Before the event, the senators held a private meeting with a group of student leaders to hear from them about the impacts of gun violence and what changes they hope to see. Following that, the students marched around the school, offering chants against gun violence.

Students and those in attendance chanted: “No justice, no peace!” and “End gun violence, no more silence!” After the march, the crowd gathered to hear remarks from officials and rally for change.

Rodriguez calls for gun control reforms

West New York Mayor Gabriel Rodriguez was among the elected officials in attendance, and started by holding a moment of silence for the victims of those lost in the school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. During the solemn reflection, the names of victims killed in the massacre were displayed on the digital sign in front of the high school.

“As saddened as I am, and all of us are from the tragic events that our children and all of us are facing together as a nation, I am equally as proud of the youth that stand before me today,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez thanked Booker and Menendez for fighting for gun control, as well as outgoing U.S. Representative Albio Sires of the 8th Congressional District which encompasses Hudson County, who could not attend the rally due to knee surgery. Additionally, Rodriguez touted meeting with the students of Memorial High School following their demands for change.

“Like many, we began this morning with meetings,” Rodriguez said. “Today was a special meeting. Courageous and compassionate students, future leaders,… demanded to speak to the administration and elected officials about the current state of affairs as it pertains to gun control… They were valiant enough to come forward because they’re scared. They don’t understand why they have to feel scared to come to school. They don’t understand it, I don’t understand it, and our leadership doesn’t understand it. I thank and commend our senators for spending time and speaking with them candidly. We must continue to urge and plead for gun control reform, because as it stands, no one can deny it is out of control. Protecting the health and safety of our future generations has never been more important than right now.”

Rodriguez said that schools should be a safe haven for children, not what they have become in recent memory. He said West New York may be a small municipality, but it has a big community much akin to Uvalde. Rodriguez said he thought of his six-year old when seeing the pictures from the day of children running from the massacre, and that action must be taken to prevent more from experiencing that trauma.

“It is our duty to ensure that our youth have a safe place to play and grow,” Rodriguez said. “Schools across this great nation have always been that place: until now. We must do better now. Our hearts go out to all the families who have been affected and forever changed by the senseless acts of violence in our schools… The time for change is now.”

Menendez and Booker meet with students ahead of the rally to discuss gun violence in schools and its impact on students.

Menendez advocates Senate colleagues support legislation

Following Rodriguez, Menendez addressed the crowd, first thanking the students for speaking up as well as for the elected officials and others for coming to West New York to hear them out. Menendez noted that while the shooting in Uvalde was the impetus for the meeting, gun violence continues with shootings that have occurred since then killing four in Tulsa, Oklahoma and two injured in Pennsylvania.

“While we pray for the families of the victims of those impacted by these horrific shootings, we are all here today because no more families need to go through what the families in Tulsa and Uvalde and so many others are going through today,” Menendez said. He said he was proud to meet with the students prior to the rally, thanking them again for taking a stand.

“Thank you for using your voice to speak for those who are no longer with us, represented by the memorial classroom with 21 empty desks, one for each of the 19 children in Uvalde and two teachers who were too soon taken from us,” Menendez said, noting the high school had put together a memorial outside to honor those recently lost in Texas. “Thank you for using your voice for all those recovering from their wounds and for all those who forever bare the scars of gun violence. And thank you for using your voice to make sure that we act so that this doesn’t happen again.”

Menendez said that people often get desensitized to numbers, so he read aloud the names of those who were killed in Uvalde. He underscored that it was time to move past offering thoughts and prayers, calling for the implementation of legislation to prohibit automatic weapons from getting into schools, work places, supermarkets, and houses of worship, among other places that should be safe from gun violence.

“Assault weapons with high capacity magazines… don’t belong on our streets full stop,” Menendez said. “And they should be outlawed.”

The memorial classroom set up on the lawn in front of Memorial High School in West New York.

Taking action

Menendez continued: “We are committed to honor the victims of Uvalde. We are going beyond thoughts and prayers, we are advocating for action. We are focused on passing a gun safety bill with measures that are proven to bring down the rates that Americans are killed by firearm… common sense legislation such as HR8 that would expand background checks… or the assault weapons ban that I voted for in 1994. These are the measures that work and there is simply no earthly reason why Congress has failed to enact  these bills that are supported by the overwhelming majorities of Americans.”

Specifically, Menendez called for the passage of the Keep Americans Safe Act, which he said would ban high capacity magazines of 50 to 100 rounds.

“High capacity magazines are high capacity killing and they should be outlawed once and for all,” Menendez said.

Additionally, Menendez noted is working with Booker on banning “ghost guns” or untraceable weapons, and is a proud sponsor of legislation to outlaw silencers and suppressors. He also touted his work to hold gun manufacturers accountable for certain gun crimes.

“We have solutions to the problems of guns in our country,” Menendez said. “We need the courage for some of our colleagues to break the gun lobby and vote for the American people… It’s time for the American people to know who is protecting our kids, and who is standing in the way of common sense gun reforms.”

Menendez ended by saying he was haunted by the bi-lingual welcome sign to the school accompanied by pictures of the elementary students receiving honor roll certificates. Stopping at one point as he teared up, he said this hit home for him, in part reminding him of the tight-knit Latino communities like his native Union City and even West New York. Menendez said he couldn’t help but think of his family, including his granddaughters, and echoed calls to take action against gun violence now. He repeated much of his speech in Spanish before passing the mic to Booker.

Booker passionately echoed calls for gun control in the wake of mass shootings across America. Photo courtesy of Booker.

Booker echoes calls to address gun violence problem

In his remarks, Booker was sorry to be there but glad that the community was talking about the issue. 

“The truth is, the overwhelming majority of Americans want us to change this national nightmare,” Booker said. “Senator Menendez and I have been fighting on this issue, not in a reactive sense, but since the day I got to the Senate. Coming from a community too often ravished by gun violence, we have been working for change, proposing legislation, pushing, fighting, making demands. But today, we have hope. Because what brings us here is the strength, and the commitment, and the fight, and the demand of our younge people.”

Booker thanked the high school students for standing up for the cause, comparing the struggle for gun control to that of Alice Paul and her fight to give women the right to vote. He said her battle seemed unwindable at points, but she eventually triumphed and called for the same to occur in the fight against gun violence. 

“This is the time for us to demand change,” Booker said. “We demand universal comprehensive background checks. We demand a ban on military assault weapons that belong in theaters of war and not in our streets. we demand a nation that doesn’t make it easier to get a driver’s license than it is to get a gun license.”

Booker said it was not a partisan issue, “not a battle of left versus right but a battle of right versus wrong.” He added that Americans do not have “justice or freedom” if they can’t go to school, the supermarket or to work without fear of a mass shooting.

Booker said legislation may be passed, but it will only be incremental change. He said more needs to happen, and that can occur with continued activism, especially from youth such as the students present at the rally.

Booker concluded: “We all together, collectively, these young people leading us today, say ‘I am up for the struggle! I will fight to defend my nation! I will stand for domestic tranquility! I will stand for justice. I will stand for freedom from fear and gun violence and murder.’ We can achieve that in America. This is our country, let us change it’s destiny now and commit ourselves to doing what is necessary!”

NJEA President Sean Spiller speaks with gun control advocates at the rally on June 2. Photo courtesy of NJEA.

Advocates rally for gun control

Following Booker, a lineup of others from education leaders to gun control advocates echoed calls for action.

“I don’t know about you, but I am sick and tired of seeing dead children and teachers die because we have cowards in the Senate that refuse to stand up the NRA,” Nicole Alzamora, a Moms Demand Action volunteer and a Jersey City Public School teacher said. “Cowards that have the audacity to show up to an NRA convention in light of the deaths of 21 innocent lives, but yet won’t let guns inside their own convention.”

“I refuse to accept the excuse that America’s gun problem is too big to tackle,” said NJEA President Sean Spiller. “When our children’s lives are at stake, we cannot stand for excuses or inaction. We need leaders with the courage to prioritize our children and communities over powerful special interests. Those of us who value our children’s lives are going to use our voices and our votes to overwhelm the money and back-room dealing of those who think the deadly status quo is ok.”

“Senators Booker and Menendez know the American people aren’t asking for much — they just want to go to the grocery store, send their kids to school, go to church, and walk the streets without getting shot down,” said John Feinblatt, President of Everytown for Gun Safety. “If their colleagues refuse to meet that basic need, this country is in deep trouble.”

“We are here today to raise awareness within our community about the effects of gun violence,” said Francisca Sanchez, a teacher at Memorial High School. “Even though our community has not experienced an immediate threat, our students and staff do experience the psychological effects of the numerous school shootings taking part in our nation. We might be hundreds of miles from Uvalde, Texas but we feel their loss. School is supposed to be a safe haven. It is our duty to advocate for gun measures that will keep our students safe. It is my hope that our students will use their feelings and passion to continue to keep this issue at the forefront and push for meaningful change.”

Memorial High School sophomore Bradley Manso also addressed the crowd. In addition, Bayonne Mayor James Davis, Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, and Hudson County Sheriff Frank Schillari were in attendance to show support.

The rally comes as the senators prepare to return to Washington, D.C. next week where they will continue to demand that Republicans join Democrats in passing strong federal legislation to reduce the number of gun deaths in the United States. Additionally, the rally is prompt as National Gun Violence Awareness Day, also known as #WearOrange Day, is being recognized this year on Friday, June 3.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.

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