Guns in the crosshairs

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Locals weigh in on assault weapon debate

RIO GRANDE – On most Friday evenings, a small group of area residents stands at the corner of routes 47 and 9 in Rio Grande holding signs that call for an end to war.

When the half-hour vigils end, dozens of drivers passing by have honked car horns in support.

On Jan. 4, many honked their car horns, but some made an obscene gesture.

That day, the Coalition for Peace and Justice’s message was different.

One of their signs stated "Declare peace. Ban assault weapons" and another had "Demand Congress ban assault weapons."

The elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman shot and killed 20 children and six adults Dec. 14, prompted the Coalition for Peace and Justice to take to the street in protest. The gunman, Adam Lanza, used an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle in the killings, which was purchased legally by his mother, according to media reports.

The shooting helped return gun control to the forefront of national issues, with renewed calls for greater federal restrictions on firearms. In opposition, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association (NRA) said the problem is not enough guns, stating that an armed adult could have used a firearm to protect the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School.

A preliminary hearing in the case of alleged mass shooter James E. Holmes, accused of killing 12 in a Colorado movie theater in July, kept gun violence in national headlines this week. In that instance, the gunman also used a semiautomatic rifle, as well as a 12-guage shotgun and a handgun. The rifle had a magazine, called a drum, which holds 100 bullets. He also used tear gas, and authorities say he rigged his apartment with explosives.

On Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden was set to meet with gun control advocates and organizations representing victims of violence, with a meeting with a representative of the NRA planned for the next day, according to news reports, in what most see as preparation for new national gun legislation.

Also on Wednesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie indicated on the Today Show a willingness to talk about stricter gun laws, if addressing the mental health system, improved access to drug treatment and looking at the impact of violent video games was also included.

“If we don’t deal with the substance abuse issues and the mental illness issues that lead to violence, we’re short changing this conversation,” he told NBC’s Matt Lauer.

But the debate has also been heard locally, in coffee shops, family rooms, and on the corner of 9 and 47.

"I'd love to see no guns anywhere," said Jean Conti of Cape May Court House, who has been attending various marches over the years. She was bundled up in gloves and a winter coat, holding a sign on Friday.

An outright gun ban in the United States would be impossible, Conti said, so at the very least assault weapons should be prohibited.

But guns are not to blame for the Dec. 14 elementary school shooting, said Vince Talarico, who works at the gun counter at Just Sports on Mechanic Street in Cape May Court House.

The problem stems from federal and state gun laws not being enforced, and guns being used illegally needs to be investigated, said the Cape May Court House man, interviewed Tuesday while at a dealer gun show in South Carolina.

Some people should not own firearms, he suggested, but those who purchase them legally have a right to own guns, and further restrictions would not keep guns away from criminals. Enforcement would, he said.

Talarico spoke of people who illegally had guns being let off on plea bargains or cases being dismissed altogether instead of serving a five-year prison sentence.

Sales at Just Sports in Middle Township are going well, Talarico indicated. In 2012, gun sales increased at the store but he did not know by how much.

Handguns have been a big seller, Talarico said. Women and senior citizens are buying the firearms for protection, he said.

Anyone purchasing a gun in New Jersey must undergo a background check.

The sale of guns is widespread, as is their use, and needs to be better controlled, said Coalition for Peace and Justice member Betty Canderan of Cape May Court House.

More extensive background checks need to be conducted on people buying firearms at gun shows, she said.

Her issue lies with assault weapons, adding that she believes people have a right to have hunting rifles.

Congress has to be pressured into banning assault weapons, Canderan said.

Canderan is used to protests and would be willing to head to Washington, D.C., in a campaign against assault weapons, she said.

Assault weapons should be prohibited even if that means giving people money in the return for the weapons, Canderan said.

Exactly what constitutes an assault weapon can be difficult to define. In general, the term is used for semi-automatic rifles that look similar to military weapons. A semi-automatic is a gun that can fire as often as a user pulls the trigger. Under the former federal assault weapon ban, which expired in 2004, criteria included a rifle with a folding or telescoping stock, a pistol grip, a bayonet mount and a flash suppressor. A firearm with two of these was considered an assault weapon under the ban, although advocates on both sides of the debate said the law’s criteria were merely cosmetic. It also banned magazines that could hold more than 10 rounds.

Renewing the ban is one of the aims of the Coalition for Peace and Justice.

The coalition has protested the Iraqi war, but recently has turned its efforts on ending wars all over the world, according to Canderan.

The Coalition for Peace and Justice covers southern Ocean County and Cape May, Salem and Glassboro counties.

Coalition for Peace and Justice executive director Norm Cohen shared similar thoughts as Canderan.

The laws need to be more restrictive, he said, and Cohen wants it to be more difficult to obtain guns.

He also feels that loopholes should be closed because people can purchase a variety of guns.

Any gun is dangerous, Canderan said, but a gun inside the home – loaded – is what she is worried about. The firearm can easily be stolen, she said.

“It just isn’t worth it,” Canderan said.


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