Gun forum: What Massachusetts does matters

Hebrew Center hosts forum to discuss gun violence.

From left, Alex Rego, Mark Saloio, Erik Blake, John W. Stevens, Keith Chatinover, and Janet Goldenberg look on as Rabbi Caryn Broitman introduces the Forum on Gun Safety and Prevention of Gun Violence at the Hebrew Center on Sunday. — Sophia McCarron

Updated 1 pm

The rate of Massachusetts gun deaths is a quarter of the national rate. However, the Forum on Gun Safety and Prevention of Gun Violence held at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center on Sunday stressed that there is more work to be done. Massachusetts has a rate of 3.7 per 100,000 gun deaths; the nationwide rate is 12 to 100,000, whereas Canada’s is 2 per 100,000 and Australia’s is 1 per 100,000.

Guest speaker Janet Goldenberg suggested that gun violence prevention needs to be treated like a public health issue in the same way that drunk driving has been treated as such in the past. In essence, the government was not issuing a nationwide recall of cars, but fewer people are dying of drunken driving–related accidents —  the government does not have to take away everyone’s guns, but they can make them more safe. The forum was a nonpartisan event which explicitly did not discuss any controversies around the Second Amendment.

Alongside Goldenberg, who is the chair of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, the panel included Tisbury Police Chief Mark Saloio, Oak Bluffs Police Chief Erik Blake, Dukes County Commissioner and student organizer Keith Chatinover, Edgartown School Principal John W. Stevens, and MVRHS student leader Alex Rego. MVRHS Vice Principal Barbara J. Chauvin was also present, and was called upon to answer a question during the Q and A section.

The forum focused on the multifaceted aspects of gun violence prevention. Although mass shootings tend to grab the public eye in headlines and news reports, there are wider issues around domestic violence and attempted suicides, which are statistically more common. For example, suicide attempts using guns are statistically far more deadly than other methods. Ninety percent of suicide attempts involving guns are completed, compared with a rate of 5 percent for other methods.

Goldenberg praised Massachusetts’ safe storage laws, which require guns to be stored in a container with a lock on it, because it reduces a suicidal person’s access to the weapons in a moment of desperation. As a testament to the law’s effectiveness, she cited that in Massachusetts, guns are used in 9 percent of youth suicides, compared with 39 percent nationwide.

She also spoke on the legality around the gun violence issue, and highlighted that because of the variety of situations that count as “gun violence,” there is no one-size-fits-all policy to combat it. That being said, Massachusetts has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country. In May 2019, the Extreme Risk Protective Order (ERPO) was passed, which allows family members to apply to the court to take away an individual’s firearms for up to a year should family members deem them a threat to themselves or others. It also prevents the individual from buying a gun. Before, it was possible to go to a police chief to ask for the guns to be taken away — and this is still an option — but ERPO gives another avenue for families to take if they are uncomfortable with going directly to the police.

She also made sure to emphasize, “What we do in Massachusetts matters for the rest of the country.” Massachusetts has some of the strictest gun laws in the U.S., which puts the state in a unique position of being able to be a role model for future gun legislation. There is also a tradition of legal activism for gun violence prevention in the state, which the forum promoted continuing by encouraging the attendees to be proactive in talking to their representatives about this issue.

The police chiefs spoke on their role in issuing licenses to gun owners. Chief Saloio said his experiences with firearms licensing has been positive, and the overwhelming majority of people looking for licenses are responsible gun owners. What concerns him, however, is when people call who are moving to Massachusetts from another state with less strict gun laws. They are generally concerned that they will be unable to get a license in a state which is known to do background checks. According to Saloio, the Massachusetts background check is not difficult, nor time-consuming, but what is concerning is that other states don’t seem to be doing much of a background check at all. Chief Blake also brought up the point that when issuing a Massachusetts gun license, he is able to see if an individual had to be hospitalized for a mental illness in the state of Massachusetts. He is unable to see if the applicant was hospitalized in another state.

Principal Stevens offered perspective into the job of a school administrator while having to prepare for the possibility of an active shooter. It is a situation that he came close to at a school off-Island. “When I was a high school principal, we recovered a loaded gun in a locker,” he said. “I didn’t sleep for too many nights after that incident.” Staff and students undergo training to prepare for a possible active shooter, including lockdown drills and gun violence prevention curriculums, and the Edgartown School has been “hardened” — a law enforcement term — against gun violence.

Chatinover and Rego spoke more on the student activist side of the debate. For Chatinover, his activism started after the Parkland shooting in 2018. “You wanted to be angry,” he said, “but it’s almost so common it’s stripped of emotion.” Chatinover, graduated from the Martha’s Vineyard Charter School in 2018, organized buses down to Washington, D.C., for Vineyard students to participate in the March for Our Lives.

Rego, a junior at MVRHS, described the “run, hide, fight” protocol being taught at the high school. In it, students are taught different ways to respond to an active shooter situation. They are encouraged to identify objects in the classroom that can be used to distract or fight back against the shooter, should someone enter the classroom. They are taught how to barricade doors, and cautioned that should they try to barricade a door with their bodies, they do not do it standing up. Shooters tend to shoot at doors at chest level. Also in the protocol is the understanding that each situation is different, and ultimately, it is unlikely anyone, teacher or student, will know exactly what to do.

Chatinover said it is up to the people to make gun violence an issue for their elected officials. People shouldn’t be afraid to meet with their elected officials and, he said, “yap about it.”

Updated with more details from Sunday’s forum.