Student-organized 'Town Hall' brings gun conversation to Brunswick

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BRUNSWICK — David Hogg, a survivor of the deadly February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School, tweeted March 25 for students across the nation to organize local “town hall” events on gun violence.

On Saturday, April 7, a group of Brunswick High School students answered that call.

At the invitation of the students, state Rep. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, state Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, Police Chief Richard Rizzo, town councilors and School Board members participated in a two-hour panel discussion on gun violence.

The high school panel came less than a month after the Town Council adopted a resolution urging action to curb gun violence.

The discussion was moderated by student Aidan Perkinson, one of the organizers of the event, along with Pearl Stuart and Grace Clendening. Perkinson read panelists questions submitted by the public via Facebook; toward the end of the discussion, the panel also answered some audience questions.

Former Town Councilor Jackie Sartoris, who the students said helped organize the event, said she counted 104 people in attendance.

Panelists answered questions on a variety of broad topics, including gun control legislation, mental health, and the effects of gun violence on specific racial groups.

The focus of the discussion was mainly on what panelists thought should be done at the state and national levels to curb gun violence, although Rizzo also discussed the training received by the Brunswick Police Department, and School Board members went over safety measures at town schools.

The opening question to panelists asked what they would do to educate themselves on gun violence and how they see the country working together in the future to fight it.

Councilor Stephen Walker said he is still trying to figure out what he and other Brunswick officials can do on the local level.

“I know there’s a lot we can do (at the) state and federal level, but (I don’t know) what the town of Brunswick can actually (do to) act proactively on this issue,” he said. 

Later, however, Walker said he would be open to suggestions for what he can accomplish as a councilor, and he would also do everything he could to make sure Brunswick schools get “the funding they need, whether it be for mental health issues or other safety issues.”

At the state level, Carson, Rizzo and Daughtry said they support a “red-flag bill” proposed by state Sen. Mark Dion, a Democrat who represents part of Westbrook and Portland. The bill would allow police to temporarily confiscate a person’s guns if that person were deemed by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others.

Carson said opponents of the bill claim it would violate amendments to the federal and state constitutions, but those allegations are “simply not accurate.”

“Understanding what the law really says, understanding the harm that certain weapons can do and have done, and understanding where our constitutional rights have to be balanced in order to protect our fellow citizens is the place I believe we should start,” Carson said. 

Rizzo said though he had not read through the entire bill, he “really likes” Dion’s proposal. He added, however, that Brunswick does not have a huge problem with gun violence, as incidents of violent crime typically arise only three or four times a year.

Daughtry also expressed support for Dion’s bill, but said one piece of legislation will not be enough to solve gun violence. She added she works on the Legislature’s Committee on Education, and the group is working on legislation to provide more state funding for school safety across the state.

She added that continuing to talk about gun violence is important to the legislative progress.

“We have to make sure that we’re keeping this at the top of everyone’s list of priorities and that we keep talking about it,” Daughtry said.

Panelists also answered questions about the safety of Brunswick schools. Rizzo and School Board member Sarah Singer discussed the ALICE emergency response program adopted by the School Department in November.

In response to a question about “hardening” schools with added safety measures, Singer said in designing the new elementary school, committee members have added additional security measures.

She added, however, that Brunswick schools have safety measures that officials do not discuss publicly, and the district is not looking to make schools feel like “locked fortresses” for students.

Singer also said while she would support increased funding for mental health resources in Brunswick schools, she does not necessarily think that is directly related to lowering the number of school shootings.

The positive outcome of increased measures, she said, is more likely to be a reduction in the rate of suicide than homicide, as “teenagers are far more likely to kill themselves than to kill others.” 

“I would say that there are a lot of reasons to support mental health; our kids are under a lot of stress and a lot of anxiety. I’m not sure investing in mental health in our schools reduces the likelihood of mass shootings,” she said.

The majority of the panelists also voiced support for banning assault rifles for civilian use. 

Walker, for instance, said he is a registered gun owner but sees “no need for where we’ve gotten now with an overabundance of weapons on the street.”

“I respect guns, as I said I own guns, but it comes with a big responsibility and, in my opinion, I’ve used weapons all my life, there is no need for assault weapons, there is no need for high capacity magazines,” he said.

Similarly, Carson, a former U.S.  Marine who served in the Vietnam War, said he had seen the capacity of assault weapons firsthand.

“They are not guns that are suitable to be in the hands of civilians in a civilized society,” Carson said. “They were designed for military purposes, they were designed with the velocity of the bullets and the energy to do maximum damage to whatever they hit.”

Councilor David Watson, however, who also served in Vietnam, said carrying a firearm is a responsibility to his community.

Watson said he thinks the U.S. has “pretty strict” gun laws, and before making new ones, legislators should evaluate the existing laws.

Watson veered from the group again in his comments about the National Rifle Association.

Following a question about why the issue of gun violence is taking “so long to be properly addressed by the government,” Councilor Jane Millett said the influence of the NRA and money in politics are to blame.

“I disagree that the NRA is the problem,” Watson said. “The NRA probably does more for gun safety, gun training and responsibility than any other organization.”

One thing the panelists seemed to agree on, however, was their pride in the student organizers.

Councilor Kathy Wilson said she “could never be more proud” of Brunswick students than she was Saturday.

Clendening said she, Stuart and Perkinson were proud to host the panelists, too.

“We know they have such busy schedules so we are thankful,” Clendening said. “To have such a wide variety of political standpoints is awesome.”

Stuart added the event was organized in roughly a week, which is a testament to the students’ commitment to the issue.

“It shows that we can do a lot of things in a short amount of time because we’re really passionate about it,” she said.

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

A panel of state legislators and local officials participated April 7 in a student-organized “Town Hall” at Brunswick High School to discuss gun violence.

Brunswick High School students Aidan Perkinson, left, Grace Clendening and Pearl Stuart organized a “Town Hall” on gun violence April 7, following a call last month from survivors of the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida. 

University of Southern Maine student Kelly Lynch, an audience member at Saturday’s “Town Hall” event, had the number of American gun deaths and injuries so far this year written on her face. According to Gun Violence Archive, there were 3,768 gun deaths in the U.S. and 6,567 injuries as of April 7. 

Signs bearing the name and biographies of those who died during, or as a result of, the shooting at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School Feb. 14 were hung around Brunswick High’s Crooker Theater on April 7. 

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