Earlier this month, The Onion mocked college activists in a video news clip entitled “College Activists Excited to Add Powerless Voices to Gun Debate,” which involved an actual Argus editorial and a fake interview with Micah Feiring ’11 (renamed “Michael Feiring”) in its scathing take-down.
A few days later, on Valentine’s Day (which doubled as the two-month anniversary of the Newtown shooting), I joined about 30 other Wesleyan students, as well as Rabbi David Teva and Reverend Tracy Mehr-Muska, on a brief trip to Hartford for the March for Change rally in support of stricter gun laws. Initially proposed by Reverend Tracy, the trip was organized by Em Kianka ’13, Zach Malter ’13, and Michael Linden ’15.
Carrying signs with slogans like “MORE LOVE LESS GUNS” and “STAND ON THE SIDE OF LOVE,” we arrived at the state capital building in Hartford, where a crowd of over 5,000 supporters had gathered near mounds of snow and Governor Dannel Malloy was finishing up a stirring speech that hearkened back to his moving remarks in the hours after the tragedy. “Every day that we delay is a day in which more innocent individuals,” Malloy spoke from the capital steps. “I hope the NRA hopes the ‘Newtown Effect’ will go away. It won’t. We can’t let what happened in Connecticut ever go away.” At one point, a hushed chant broke out in the crowd: “Now. Now. Now. Now.”
During the hour we remained in Hartford, a succession of speakers, some more effective than others, followed Governor Malloy. Politically, they included Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, Attorney General George Jepsen, Senate president pro tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., and one Republican, Senate minority leader John McKinney, who has been known to support Connecticut’s assault-weapons ban.
“Our hearts might be broken, but our spirit is not broken,” declared Wyman to a flurry of cheers. “If we have to register to vote, we might as well register our guns.” Skip ahead to 1:10 for what may well be the most confusing call-and-response at a rally in history:
The most powerful remarks, I think, came from the victims, or family members of victims, of recent shootings. Here’s a video of a speech by Jillian Soto, whose sister Vickie Soto died protecting a first-grade classroom in Newtown:
With the Onion parody fresh in mind, I expected to find seas of like-minded college activists waving signs, arriving from Yale or Trinity or UConn. But I was surprised. The average age at the rally seemed to fall well over 30, and when I spotted a teen or child, their parents often weren’t far behind. There were ample speckles of grey throughout the crowd, and when Secretary of the State Denise Merrill spoke, she echoed Obama’s words in the hours following the Newtown shooting: “I stand here not because I’m Secretary of State. I stand here because, like many of you, I am a parent. Like many of you, I am a grandparent. And I have had enough.”
The crowd roared and fell into a chant: “Enough! Enough! Enough! Enough!”
Though school shootings make up only a tiny sliver of annual gun deaths nationwide, they play a far more central role in shaping public opinion on gun laws. The scene in Hartford was a curious case study in how parental anxieties and grief can transform into political activism—and how the epidemic of gun violence is framed, more and more, within a “Protect The Children” narrative. Curiously, in a quote to The Argus, Reverend Tracy mentions how her children inspired her to get involved:
“I have a four-year-old and a five-year-old at home, so the Newtown situation really affected me,” Mehr-Muska said. “In hindsight, I’m mad at myself for not learning about [gun violence] sooner. After looking at statistics of groups that have been disproportionately affected, it has been kind of easy for me to ignore it. Now I have been motivated to take a more active role.”
But in a statement to Wesleying, Reverend Tracy emphasized the energy of the student response to tragedy. “It was humbling and inspiring to see the leadership, passion, and energy of the Wesleyan student community in response to the profound plague of gun violence in America,” she wrote in an email, “and I was so proud to be a part of the institution they proudly represented in Hartford.”
Here’s hoping Wesleyan activists get excited to add their powerless voices to the gun debate more in the future.