ARNIE ALPERT, Active with the Activists
Ten years ago, Simonida Thurber’s son came close to tragedy when one of his sixth-grade classmates brought a loaded gun to school in Exeter. That’s why she was at the State House Wednesday with Moms Demand Action, doing what the group’s name implies: demanding action to end gun violence. “I feel strongly that we need to have a safer situation related to guns in this country,” she said.
Thurber wasn’t alone.
Claire Spollan, from Rye, was there, too, with a baby on her back. “I’ve got four kids in school,” she said. That’s why the recent shut-down of schools in nearby Portsmouth due to a gun violence threat hit home. “It’s really scary to think that schools may not be the safest place for our children,” she said. “We just really want to support legislation that supports gun violence prevention.”
Thurber and Spollan came to the State House prepared, both having attended the Moms Demand Action training session across the street in the basement of St. Paul’s Church. There, more than 100 people, mostly women, picked up information packets with background on gun violence in New Hampshire, a legislative overview, and 11 pages of guidance on how to deliver their message. Most of them put on bright red t-shirts with bold, white block letters saying, “Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.”
Karina Mackenzie delivered a quick lesson in the use of social media, such as what hashtags to use. Look around the room at all the red t-shirts, she advised. “Selfie it up,” she said, and “make sure the shirt is visible.”
State Sen. Deb Altschiller, who represents several Seacoast towns, continued in a similar vein. “When you leave here, don’t take your shirt off. Go do an errand. Go to the library. Go pick up dry cleaning, Go for a run, go to the supermarket, go somewhere, pick your kid up from school, go to the Senior Center, go somewhere, do something,” she said. “You don’t have to spark conversation. Wearing this shirt is enough.”
“We are here to elevate the conversation,” Altschiller said, outlining legislative priorities. “We are here to put our foot down and say this is our line. We want universal background checks. We want background checks on private sales. We want background checks in public sales. We want a waiting period, because when people are in crisis, and go looking for the most lethal means to, in their minds, solve a temporary crisis with a permanent solution, we want to give them pause.” Gun-free school zones and extreme risk protection orders, as well, should be on the agenda, she added.
Altschiller knows that none of those measures are going anywhere at the State House this year, though she said a bill raising penalties for “swatting,” a term used to describe false bomb threats and false mass shooter warnings, is under consideration. Yet, she’s convinced that groups like Moms Demand Action can change what is perceived as normal, much in the way cigarette smoking was shifted from being common and acceptable to being relatively rare and in many locations illegal.
Legislation wasn’t the only thing on the minds of participants. Nancy Brown described a June 10 “Guns to Gardens” event at a Concord church, where people can have their unwanted guns turned into garden tools, inspired perhaps by the Prophet Isaiah, who spoke of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Lena Nirk is organizing a day of action in Laconia the day before Mother’s Day. The message, she said, is “We don’t want chocolates. We don’t want flowers. Skip the card. Do something about gun violence.”
Turnout was higher than in previous annual Days of Action organized by the Moms. State Rep. David Meuse, who serves on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said he was impressed with the numbers, which he attributed to “a noticeable ramp up in the coverage of gun violence.” Citing defeats of many bills aimed at reducing gun violence, he added, “I think another reason why people are here is because people know that we have a lot of work to do.”
The troupe was escorted around the State House by a staff member from the Visitors Center. Some made appointments with Senators, Democrat and Republican. Others dropped off postcards with messages to Gov. Chris Sununu and for their own Senators. In the State House hallways, they also discussed policies regarding firearms in the building, where they are currently allowed. No doubt, their red shirts and large numbers made them hard to ignore, at least for the day.
It was also a day for building community and raising spirits within their group, according to Stacy Taylor Brown of Newmarket, a volunteer who helped organize the event. “We had a tough legislative session, but we’re not going away,” she said.
Chelsey Helmke of Epping has two small children and doesn’t want them in a school system where active shooter drills are seen as normal. Her top item on the Moms’ list of demands is a ban on assault weapons. She knows that’s not on the legislative agenda for now, but she obviously felt it was important to show up and be visible to the state’s lawmakers. “Small steps along the way, hopefully, will lead to a shift in culture,” she said.