Gun violence forum provides perspective

By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Manchester/Region - posted Fri., Mar. 22, 2013
Panelists (left to right) Manchester Police Chief Mark Montminy, Manchester Inte
Panelists (left to right) Manchester Police Chief Mark Montminy, Manchester Interim Superintendent of Schools Richard Kisiel, State Rep. Jason Rojas (D-9) and Sister Linda Pepe, CSJ, Collaborative Center for Justice Hartford share their perspectives on gun violence at a forum at Manchester Community College on March 20. Photos by Steve Smith.

With gun violence in Connecticut being unlikely to have any easy remedy, a forum that presented perspectives and offered much food for thought about the subject was offered by the St. Bridget New Wineskins Community and Manchester Community College on March 20.

The panel, chosen to relate different viewpoints on gun violence, consisted of Manchester Police Chief Marc Montminy, Interim Superintendent of Manchester Public Schools Dr. Richard Kisiel, State Rep. Jason Rojas (D-9), and Sr. Linda Pepe, CSJ, Collaborative Center for Justice Hartford/Manchester.

Rojas said he has a personal connection to Sandy Hook Elementary School, as his mother-in-law's family is from Newtown and attended the very school where the shooting tragedy occurred last December. He said both sides of the debate have the same goal of ending gun violence, but that by dividing ourselves on political lines, opportunities are missed to address the root causes.

“I think it's appropriate to have a debate on gun control, gun safety and gun violence,” Rojas said. “But I also think that by doing so, we are easily divided into an 'us versus them,' between a left and a right, and between urban and suburban.”

Rojas suggested that those root problems - including poverty, educational disparities, racial and economic isolation, and failed drug policies - are often overlooked, perhaps because they are too challenging to tackle, but they have a larger impact on gun violence than the simple availability of firearms.

“My vision for ending gun violence includes a community effort to address the root causes,” he said. “My vision is one in which both sides – gun opponents and gun proponents – join as one to get to the heart of the matter.”

Kisiel said he believes the way to combat gun violence is by combating violence in general. “Finding a solution to gun violence will require more than legislative changes,” he said. “As an educator, our mission and goal should be to create a climate within our schools, in which our children can feel safe. The key is to prevent violence in all of its forms.”

Kisiel said his thoughts include partnerships between schools, law enforcement, public health and other agencies to prevent violence, with a comprehensive approach to high-risk behavior. He cited the efforts in Manchester that have dramatically reduced student arrests and suspensions, including drug counseling and referrals to mental health services.

“We need to implement school-based violence procedures and programs such as positive behavioral interventions that maximize the academic and social behavior outcomes for our students,” Kisiel said. “Realistically schools are probably the only place in our community where we can truly focus on breaking the cycle of violence.”

Montminy said that from a law enforcement perspective, legislation that defines which types of guns are legal and which are not would simply take too much time to police. “We can't even agree on what an assault weapon is,” he said. “Trying to get them back is going to prove to be a monumental task. I don't think we could do that in my lifetime.”

He added that the Internet has made it too easy to purchase ammunition without any identification of the buyer. “I know because I did it,” Montminy said. “One-thousand rounds of ammunition was shipped to my door, without any signature. They left it at my door and drove away. If you want to have an adult sign for it, you have to pay extra.”

Montminy added that law enforcement has no way to determine if a weapon has been purchased by someone who has a history of mental health issues. “We have the opportunity to check criminal history,” he said. “We have no way to check mental health status.”

Pepe said that there are simply too many messages of poor values and violence in the world that influence young people, especially in the media. “This behavior is viewed as acceptable because someone has power or wealth and there are no consequences to their actions,” she said, adding that a return to better moral values is what will help mitigate violence, including gun violence. She said that religious teachings are one way better values can be taught to children.

She called for a “law of love” similar to the non-violent teachings of Christ. “We must have the courage to say that all life and all life forms are sacred,” she said. “The more we proclaim that message, the more we reclaim the core values in our society. Along with the church, we need family values that are reinforced in our educational system.”

In the audience question period that came after the panelists spoke, Kisiel was asked about arming school staff, and said that would have the opposite effect of making schools safer. “To have armed guards in schools creates a sense of oppression,” he said. “It creates a sense of fear, and that's exactly what we don't want in schools.”

Rojas was asked how people could come together for productive conversations. “I think opportunities like this are obviously a good chance to do that,” he said. “Beyond all of us sitting in a big room, it might be helpful in the future to sit around small tables as neighbors and as people, and have those discussions face to face. I think it's easy to make assumptions about what people are, or who they are, or how they behave, when you don't really know them. It's a whole different ball game when you have the opportunity to sit with them.”

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