Editor's Note: The following article was submitted by Robert V. Tessaro, who recently moved back to Fort Lee after spending five years in Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
I think my interest in gun control advocacy started here in Fort Lee at an early age. Growing up I had heard the story about Fort Lee Police Officer William “Billy” Birch who was killed in the line of duty while responding to a hold up call at a motel on Route 4 west. He was shot by a repeat felon who had an illegal weapon. I remember trying to understand how such a “bad man” would be allowed to have a gun; a question I still try to answer today.
Fast forward to when I was a senior at Fort Lee High School, one of my classmates, Sujan Hong, started a student petition asking the government to ban assault rifles. The petition drew national attention, and Fort Lee High School was visited by Vice President Al Gore who praised Sujan and the other students for speaking up. The Assault Weapon Ban of 1994 was signed into law later that year. This was my first experience seeing grassroots advocacy at work, and the power a voice can have to affect positive change.
Several years later, I was serving as the Executive Director of the New Jersey Association of School Resource Officers (NJASRO), an organization for school-based law enforcement officers and school safety officials in New Jersey, when tragedy struck.
On July 18, 2005, a school safety officer named Dwayne Reeves was shot and killed as he and his partner were trying to protect students during a shootout outside of a Newark High School.
NJASRO had been a national leader in providing active shooter training for school-based law enforcement, and spoke out that more needed to be done to protect our children from incidents like this and other school shootings that been occurring around the country at the time. I had the privilege of representing NJASRO at the White House Summit on School Violence hosted by President George W. Bush.
While there was discussion on mental health counseling and improved training for school officials, there was virtually no conversation about firearms, or the easy access students had to them. I spoke about this notable absence in several conversations after the summit, and was told that the White House did not want to address guns at that time. Unfortunately, the Bush White House decided to allow the Assault Weapon Ban to expire and drastically cut funding to programs that supported law enforcement in schools. The assault rifle used in the Newtown, CT shooting would have been covered under the ban.
Soon after the summit, I received a call from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence inviting me to work for them. Based in Washington, D.C., the Brady Center, the nation’s lead gun control advocacy organization, is named for Ronald Reagan’s Press Secretary, James Brady.
Brady was shot, along with President Reagan, during an assassination attempt by a mentally ill individual with a handgun while surrounded by Secret Service agents. The Brady Center has worked tirelessly to pass common sense gun laws. The two laws they are best known for are the Brady Background Checks, which requires licensed dealers to check whether an individual is prohibited from owning a firearm, and the Assault Weapon Ban.
Over the last five years I have continued to be involved in the gun control issue. I have had incredible experiences meeting with some of the nation’s top lawmakers, police executives, and community activists to strengthen and improve these laws. I have also seen the faces of heartache as I have worked with the parents and family members from locations that are now synonymous with gun violence: Columbine, Tucson, Aurora and Virginia Tech.
Every year in the United States 100,000 people are shot, and 32,000 Americans die from gunshots, either through homicide, suicide or accident.
Several months ago, I had the honor to join my good friends James Brady and his wife, Sarah, in a meeting with President Obama at the White House on the 30th anniversary of James getting shot. James, who suffered traumatic brain damage and is forced to use a wheelchair, told all of us working to end gun violence to “Fight fiercely.”
In the coming weeks I hope to submit several articles that explain what our current gun laws are and what citizens can do. Shortly after I began my work at the Brady Center, a friend sent me a news clipping that the man who shot Billy Birch had been rearrested, while he was out on parole, for attempting to sell illegal guns. He was caught on tape bragging about how he shot a cop. He died in prison a short time after that. I kept that clipping up on my desk and looked at it every day to remind me of why I became involved.
More needs to be done to end gun violence in this country. Now is the time to “fight fiercely” to protect our children and our communities. We are better than this.