Braving near-freezing temperatures, hundreds of people gathered at the foot of the Walkway Over the Hudson Saturday morning, Oct. 29, preparing to march across the bridge in a demonstration calling for gun sense laws.
It was the fourth annual Walk for Gun Sense, an event prompted by the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012. The Walk is organized by members of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Stop The Violence, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and the Million Mom March.
These groups all advocate for “gun sense” legislation—they use the phrase to avoid the negative connotation many have with “gun control.” Their preferred policies include safe storage (locking up guns when they are not in use), universal background checks, closing the gun show loophole (many sellers at gun shows do not require background checks) and prohibiting those on the No Fly List from purchasing firearms.
One of the event’s organizers, Dutchess County Coordinator for New Yorkers Against Gun Violence and Professor of Film at Vassar Sarah Kozloff, stated, “We’re hoping to embolden our legislators to take on the gun violence issue. They think if they talk about guns at all they’ll be voted out of office, and we want to show them how strong and deep support is for smart gun laws.”
Regional Organizing Manager for the Brady Campaign Kim Russell added, “We know that background checks work. Since they started in 1994, we’ve stopped 2.4 million gun sales.”
At the Walk, dozens of eager marchers arrived well before the 10 a.m. start time, bundled up against the chill and holding colorful signs with gun sense advocacy group logos, as well as homemade placards proclaiming “Smart Gun Laws Protect Our Kids,” “No Fly, No Buy” and other such slogans.
Most attendees were parents in their 40s and 50s with young kids—and even a few dogs—in tow. Most asserted they came to the event out of concern for their children’s safety in a country where it is easy to access high-caliber weapons. Many marchers cited Sandy Hook as the event that galvanized them into action, though some noted that they have been involved gun legislation advocacy much longer, having participated in the Million Mom March in Washington D.C. in 2000.
Hudson Valley Coordinator for New Yorkers Against Gun Violence Alex Dubroff said, “[Before Sandy Hook] I didn’t know anything about the gun violence problem in our country. To learn that there are 90 people every day who are killed with guns was eye-opening for me, and I just knew I had to do something.”
On the other hand, Russell’s motivation was more personal. “I’m a victim of gun violence,” she said. “I was robbed in Atlanta, Georgia in 1999. I was shot and my friend was killed. I didn’t do anything for a long time [and then] Sandy Hook happened and I realized what had happened to me could happen to my children, and that changed everything for me.”
Attendee Jason Zetoff, a teacher in Newtown, CT, where the Sandy Hook shooting took place, said, “I’ve seen firsthand what gun violence does to a community. If it can happen in Newtown, it can happen anywhere.”
The Walk opened with live renditions of popular folk tunes, such as Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Next, the event’s organizers and special guests, including former New York State Senator and current State Senate candidate Terry Gipson, Stop the Violence founder Robert Pemberton and Dutchess County Legislator Joel Tyner, spoke to the assembled crowd.
Tyner started a passionate call and response with the audience: “Newtown, Columbine, Virginia Tech. What’s so crazy about a background check?” He also spoke about the County budget, noting that the upcoming review could affect funding for enforcement of a potential safe storage act, but that in the past, budget hearing attendance by gun sense advocates has been scant.
At 10:45, the ralliers began the 2.56-mile march across the Walkway over the Hudson and back, their signs and the children’s hats and coats bright splotches of color against the gray sky. Some chanted their legislative demands: “What do we want?” “Background checks!” “When do we want them?” “Now!”
As the marchers made their way across the bridge, a small group of men in National Rifle Association hats stood silently observing the procession. Asked if he was there to protest the event, one man in an NRA cap curtly replied, “This is a public park. Don’t I have right to be here?” Several Vassar students also participated in the march, including freshmen Sarah Rivers ’20 and Drew Solender ’20. Rivers explained her attendance at the march, saying, “It’s very important that if you believe in something, you shouldn’t be quiet about it.”
Solender said that he thinks the laws these groups are advocating for are common-sense measures that most people can agree with. “[The influence of] powerful lobbies with a lot of money and a very passionate, active membership is the only thing stopping us from having [gun sense laws],” he added.
In an emailed statement, Vassar’s Interim President Jonathan Chenette commented on student participation in the event: “Vassar supports—and encourages—students’ rights to legally and safely protest. We consider this form of nonviolent protest an important part of life in a democracy and are heartened when we see our students engaged in this way.”
Chenette went on to say that though the school does not take an official stance on gun control, “Vassar would oppose any new legislation allowing guns on campuses in New York.”
“Vassar has a strict policy on guns,” concurred Vassar Director of Safety and Security Arlene Sabo via email. “They are not allowed on campus, not in houses, not in vehicles, and not on people. This is not only Vassar’s policy; it is New York state law. Should anyone reading this not be aware and have any type of gun (including a BB gun, pellet gun, or paintball gun), I ask that they immediately call Safety and Security to come and secure the gun,” she continued.
On Monday, Oct. 31, Sabo sent out emails to the student body detailing three BB and/or pellet gun-related incidents that occurred on or near campus over the weekend. At around 1:30 a.m. Saturday, a LaGrange Avenue resident heard what were possibly two BB gun shots and later discovered damage to her window that may have been caused by a BB. At approximately 11:00 p.m. on Sunday, three unidentified persons illegally entered a Terrace Apartment, and, when surprised by one of the residents, shot him in the shoulder with a BB gun. About 15 minutes later, four men approached a student outside the ACDC, and he heard a noise that sounded like a pellet or BB gun as he walked away, but was not hit. The Town of Poughkeepsie Police are investigating, and, as a result of the incidents, security patrols on campus have increased.
Though New York has the country’s third lowest statewide gun death rate, the issue still deeply affects the Poughkeepsie community. According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, from 2006 to 2015, there were 734 violent crimes involving firearms committed in the City of Poughkeepsie, including 181 people who were wounded by guns, and 26 who lost their lives to gun violence.
Since these statistics are crime-related, they may not include suicides, which account for nearly two-thirds of gun-related deaths in the United States, according to the Brady Campaign. These numbers also do not include gun-related crimes in the Town of Poughkeepsie, as well as the surrounding towns and villages.
Back at the march, New Yorkers Against Gun Violence’s Kozloff summed up why gun sense laws are so important to the hundreds at the rally, and to millions across the United States: “No other country in the world allows 90 of its citizens to get killed [by guns] every day. This is one of the major moral issues of our time. This carnage gets publicity when there’s a mass shooting, but day-in and day-out, people are dying because our gun laws are so lax.”
Jaime Pessin, the New York State Chapter Leader for Moms Demand Action, concluded, “[Gun violence] is not an issue that we need to accept as normal in our lives.”