Fort Lee resident Robert V. Tessaro remembers when in 1994 then Vice President Al Gore visited Fort Lee High School.
Tessaro, the nephew of former Fort Lee Police Chief Thomas Tessaro and the son of former Municipal Court Judge Robert T. Tessaro, was among a group of Fort Lee High School students at the time who started a petition supporting the proposed ban on assault weapons.
“I guess it was very unique at the time for schools to be active in this that we actually got a visit from [Gore], who came to Fort Lee, praising the students for getting involved in that,” Tessaro said, adding, “That was really my first major experience learning about gun control laws … and how to get involved in making sure laws were passed on a national level.”
Tessaro is now the president and founder of Safe School Technologies and a recognized expert on youth violence prevention. He is the former Director of Law Enforcement Relations for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and remains active with the Brady Center and promoting what he calls "sensible gun laws."
Tessaro is also the former Executive Director of the New Jersey Association of School Resource Officers (NJASRO) and has served on the Firearms Committee for the International Association Chiefs of Police (IACP), which he called “the major police chiefs’ association in the United States.”
About two months ago, Tessaro moved back to Fort Lee with his family after five years in Washington, D.C., where he worked on gun control policy. He attended the candlelight vigil Monday at Monument Park for the victims of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. and said, “Unfortunately incidents like this always are what brings gun control to the forefront.”
Tessaro said he’s worked over the years with victims of the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech and has met victims of other mass shootings, including Columbine and Aurora.
“Every time, we’re optimistic that things have changed,” Tessaro said. “After Gabby Giffords was shot, we thought, ‘this is one of their own—a member of Congress. You have to act now.’ And they haven’t yet.”
But Tessaro also said that after Newtown, the dialogue “does seem different,” and that he’s “cautiously optimistic that something is going to get done” with regard to gun control.
“Finally it seems that they’re going to be pushing forward from the legislation that I’ve seen so far … to try and propose a version of the assault weapon ban and a ban on online ammunition sales,” Tessaro said. “That’s what I’m guessing are going to be the gun control laws that are going to come up first and probably trying to strengthen the background check system.”
But he also acknowledged the likelihood of a national debate, noting that the NRA has “gone radio silent since the shootings.”
“They took down their Facebook page; they took down their Twitter account, and they haven’t commented,” Tessaro said. “[Wednesday] morning they put out that they’re going to do a press conference on Friday.”
The NRA statement released Wednesday says in part that the organization “is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again,” and USA Today and other media outlets reported that the group had put its Facebook page up again Tuesday and posted a Tweet for the first time since the tragic events in Newtown.
But Tessaro remained skeptical, saying he guessed the NRA on Friday would blame the shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School on anything but guns, though he hopes that guess is wrong.
Tessaro called New Jersey a “leader in controlling access to military-style weapons,” noting the state’s ban on assault weapons, thorough background checks and leaders in Congress, including Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), “who have been really outspoken on the issue.”
“And we have outstanding law enforcement officers in the schools who are working with communities to prevent and train on how to respond if, God forbid, this ever happened in New Jersey,” Tessaro said, adding that there is still a lot to be done in the state, where he estimated that 70 to 80 percent of guns recovered from crime scenes are from out of state.
“We have one of the lowest rates of gun violence in the country, and that’s because of our strict laws,” Tessaro said. “That’s an indisputable thing; states that have more guns have more gun crime. States that have more sensible gun laws on the books have less gun crime.”