In wake of the recent incidents of gun violence that have taken place in the United States, one of the Democratic candidates vying for New York’s 19th Congressional District seat in Pat Ryan, hosted an open forum on gun violence on Tuesday, April 3 at the Kingston City Library.
Ryan, a native of Kingston and a veteran of the Iraq War who served in Iraq for 27 months outlined a couple of reasons in the beginning of the forum for why he felt that holding this forum was important.
“As the son of a teacher, it is just wrong that teachers and their students have to participate in lockdown drills,” Ryan said. “When I was serving in Iraq, I carried an M4, which is similar to the weapon used by Nikolas Cruz. I can’t get the image of a 19-year-old carrying a weapon designed to kill humans into a school out of my head.”
Ryan also expressed his disappointment in his potential counterpart for this fall’s mid-term election in US Congress Rep. John Faso, R-Kinderhook; for his lack of leadership in the discussions of gun violence.
“I’ve been disappointed in lack of leadership by Faso,” Ryan said. “He has not been willing to have this conversation that were having tonight.”
Ryan was joined by a panel of people with diverse backgrounds. This includes Juan Figueroa, who is the Democratic candidate for the Ulster County sheriff position. Figueroa served 22 years in the U.S. Marine Corps and also was with the New York State Police for 25 years. He had a clear message when it comes to gun control.
“There is a simple solution: assault weapons need to be banned,” Figueroa said.
While assault weapons were banned in New York after Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013 (NY SAFE Act) in January 2013, they have not been universally banned throughout the United States.
Other members of the panel included: Mike Lillis, a physics teacher and the current union president of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers; Arielle Chiger, a second-grade teacher in the New Paltz Central School District; Eli Duncan-Gilmour, a New Paltz High School senior and alternate member of the New Paltz Village Planning Board; Omiroro Renee T. Oni-Eseleh, a student at Dutchess Community College who is also an outspoken immigration rights activist and community advocate for mental health awareness and Rennie Scott-Childress, a SUNY New Paltz history professor and an alderman on the Kingston Common Council.
Each of the panelists provided different perspectives on the issue of gun violence. Childress compared the issue of guns in society to pollution.
“Anybody for drinking dirty water or breathing bad air?” Scott-Childress asked the audience. “Guns have become a form of pollution. They are polluting our culture. People are fearful of them even when they’re not present. What kind of freedom is it when you have to retreat to your home with a firearm?”
Scott-Childress went on to add how the wrong terminology is used when it comes to gun control.
“The issue is not guns, the issue is how the guns are used. Guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill people,” he said
At one point in the discussion, Ryan asked each of the panelists what is one thing that can be done now that would push the limits on gun control. Oni-Eseleh responded by discussing the societal issues surrounding gun violence that need to be addressed.
“We need to address patriarchal violence, white supremacy, conflict management and have better communication skills since we are all interconnected as a society,” Oni-Eseleh said.
The youngest member of the panel in Duncan-Gilmour answered the question by discussing how the second amendment should be able to have limits on it.
The idea of gun control shouldn’t be thought of as a constitutional issue,” Duncan-Gilmour said. “With the first amendment, there have been times where the freedom of speech has been limited. If we can limit the freedom of speech, then we should be able to limit the freedom to own a gun to keep people safe.”
Responsible gun ownership was also a topic of discussion. Two of the panelists in Figueroa and Lillis, stated that they are gun owners. Both of the individuals acknowledged that there needs to be responsible gun ownership.
“I’m a gun owner and I do believe in sensible gun laws,” Figueroa said. “Think about where we live, there are folks in places such Minnesota and Wyoming who grow up with guns. Responsible gun ownership does exist. So it’s important that we keep that in mind and not paint everybody with the same brush.”
Another theme that came up in the discussion was the idea that teachers should be armed, which is something that has been suggested since the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. With being an elementary school teacher for over a decade, Chiger did not agree with this idea.
“I view the idea of arming teachers as a sick joke,” Chiger said.
Figueroa echoed Chiger’s sentiments about the idea of arming teachers.
“With being a police officer for over 20 years, I know that the responsibility of having a weapon is tremendous,” Figueroa said. “How can society expect to put that responsibility on a teacher?”
Members of the audience were able to contribute to the discussion. One woman in the audience asked Figueroa why he feels the need to own a gun. Figueroa cited his career as a police officer as the reason for this.
“During my career as a police officer, I put a lot of people behind bars.” Figueroa said. “It has become easier for people to track each other down and because of this, I need to have a weapon for my protection against these individuals.”
Another audience member stated that while these type of discussions are productive, people need to get out and vote for these ideas.
“We have to remember that we have the power to vote elected officials against gun control out,” she said. “Until we vote them out, we are going to keep having these discussions until we’re blue in the face.”
There were comments in the audience from those who opposed any firearm regulations, this included James Meineker, who disagreed with the panel and touched upon how some people are misinformed about the weapons that are identified as assault rifles.
“There are so many myths here that you’ve presented that just aren’t true,” Meineker said to Ryan. “In 2016, there were only five murders committed with rifles in New York state and only two of those with an assault rifle.”
Matthew Gose, a student at New Paltz High School closed the public comments by saying that he finds it unfair that some kids are not able to express their power when it comes to voting.
“There’s only a small amount of high schoolers who are 18 and can vote,” Gose said. “I find it unfair that there are students who can’t express their voices on an issue that directly affects them.”
Ryan said that this discussion was important to have for those who have differing viewpoints on the issue of gun control.
“It is important that we try to find common ground with those who disagree with us,” Ryan said. “Talks like this need to happen. We can’t let systemic issues go. We have the power to change things right now.”