by Cecille de Laurentis MPP/MCRP ’20 and Karyn Olsen, Director of Communications
On October 24, 2018, the Bloustein School hosted the annual Governor J. Florio Distinguished Visiting Scholar in Public Policy Lecture, “Making informed choices for the public good: Advancing civil dialogue on gun policy,” with special guests former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the victim of a shooting in 2011 and her husband, Navy combat veteran and retired NASA astronaut Captain Mark Kelly.
In 1990, Governor James J. Florio signed into law one of the nation’s toughest law on assault weapons, banning the sale and restricting ownership of a wide range of semiautomatic guns. Nearly 30 years later, gun safety and violence have risen to the top of many political agendas as the U.S. deals with what many are calling a “human rights crisis,” as gun violence has become an almost everyday occurrence.
Now a senior policy fellow at the Bloustein School, Gov. Florio welcomed guests and encouraged members of the audience to continue an open dialogue on the topic of gun policy. “The turnout and enthusiasm shown for tonight’s event really are a tribute to our honored guests who have truly demonstrated leadership in this area,” he said as gave his opening remarks.
“They have really shown the way for people who do not understand the problems associated with the epidemic of gun violence. As with any other epidemic, there is a need for education, there is a need for remediation,” he continued. “And that is what we are here to talk about—how to create good public policy solutions to help curb gun violence.” He also discussed some of the political challenges he faced while working on the hotly contested assault weapons ban passed during his tenure.
Mark Kelly blended the personal and political as he discussed his wife’s recovery from a traumatic brain injury, emphasizing the importance of endurance and not giving up when fighting toward a specific goal. He explained their advocacy for responsible gun control measures through their group, Americans for Responsible Solutions. Since her injury, Congresswoman Giffords and Captain Kelly have traveled the country advocating for stiffer laws.
“Gun violence is a public health crisis. The U.S. is like no other country in the world when it comes to gun violence. Because of this issue is why we are here today.”
The event also served as the forum for New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announcement of a new grant designating Rutgers University as New Jersey’s Center for Gun Violence Research (CGVR).
“Gabby and I are glad to be here for the announcement that Rutgers will receive a $2 million grant to conduct research on gun violence. It is very important that this funding is coming from New Jersey because federal funding for this issue has pretty much been eliminated,” said Kelly. “In spite of federal inaction, it is states like New Jersey that continue to lead the way on this issue.”
He noted New Jersey’s record on gun violence prevention serves as a model for other states to emulate. New Jersey has some of the strongest gun laws in the country—including background checks, extreme risk laws, and strong concealed-carry permitting requirements—and those laws are actually working as the state has one of the lowest percentages of gun violence deaths in the nation. New Jersey’s real problem, he said, is gun trafficking, as firearms come in from other states with less restrictive laws. That issue has become a primary concern to many voters and is the reason we need strong federal laws.
“The 2018 elections could be a game-changer on the issue of gun safety,” said Kelly. “It has become almost like a third rail—on some railroads, there is an additional track you don’t want to touch because you’ll get electrocuted—and the political issue of gun safety is something no one wants to touch… But this year the tables have turned, and dozens of candidates are running on a gun safety platform….and that, ultimately, has an impact on all of you in New Jersey.”
Congresswoman Giffords, who continues to suffer from aphasia after her injury, delivered a brief message about continuing to fight and live life to the fullest. “Stopping gun violence takes courage,” she said in her brief comments. “Now is the time to come together. Democrats, Republicans, everyone, we must never stop fighting. Be bold, be courageous. Fight, fight, fight! The nation is counting on you.”
Cecille de Laurentis, a second-year graduate student in the Bloustein School’s three-year MPP/MCRP dual degree program, represented the student body as a panelist. “As the only student on the panel, I knew I would be asked to provide a young person’s perspective that could connect the content of these speeches with the student body,” she said. “Last year in my Policy Formation course, we talked about how Governor Florio managed to pass the strictest gun control legislation in the country during his term in the early nineties. I was given the opportunity to hear him recount this in his own words.”
A 2013 graduate of Barnard College in with a BA in Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures, Cecille worked and lived in Kyoto, Japan for three years. Her experiences as an undergraduate and living abroad helped shape her progressive politics and values and led her back to her home state to pursue her master’s degree. She has over two years of advocacy experience with organizations including Food and Water Watch New Jersey and New Jersey Citizen Action and believes that grassroots organizing is the strongest force behind social change.
Stuart Shapiro, Bloustein School Associate Dean and Professor of Policy moderated the panel, which included also included Gov. Florio, Congresswoman Giffords, and Capt. Kelly. Bill Castner, a Senior Advisor to Governor Phil Murphy rounded out the discussants.
Each of the panelists offered their own thoughts on how to engage politically and address the problem of gun violence. Said Cecille, “My advocacy experience lies in the realm of environmental issues and financial justice, rather than gun control, but I tried to emphasize the importance of sustained grassroots movements that carry on beyond election season.”
“Additionally, I pointed out that many students value an intersectional approach to policy, taking into consideration how structural racism and misogyny influence violence in our society.”
Governor Florio brought up the concept of participatory democracy—noting, “The process doesn’t really work unless we all work at making it work.”
Cecille emphasized that students and youth overall have strong political opinions. “Anytime you do anything, you are making a political statement. And as long as you are involved, you should always try to make the change that you want to see.”
With midterm elections held just two weeks after the event, she noted it was important for students to consider the tools they had at their disposal to make their voices heard. “Voting is one way we can speak out and register our approval or disapproval of policy, and I encouraged my peers to do so on November 6,” she said. “However, we should get involved throughout the year as well—volunteering, working at a nonprofit, or simply talking to others in the communities we live and work among. Like Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly, everyone has a story. One way we can participate is by continuing—or starting—to listen.”
Elizabeth Matto, Associate Research Professor and Director of the Center for Youth Political Participation at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, wrapped up the event with by discussing the voter registration drives and other engagement initiatives CYPP takes on. “The mission of CYPP is to advance the political learning of young adults,” she said. “and to equip them to be active and engaged citizens. So what does this mean? Registering to vote and voting on election day of course.”
She described Eagleton’s launch of a pioneering effort in 2004 called the Young Elected Leaders Project. It entailed conducting a census of young adults serving in office at all levels to get a sense of their backgrounds, their pathways to politics, their style of leadership, and then bringing a number of them to Rutgers for a conference. “One of those leaders who attended that conference was Gabby Giffords, who at the time had been recently been elected to the Arizona state senate. With 74% of the vote, she, at the time, was the youngest woman elected to the state senate. She continues to serve as a model of leadership and public service notwithstanding the unparalleled challenges that she has confronted in the line of duty.”
“The work that we do on this campus, and civic engagement efforts around the country, are founded on something more expansive, a more multi-faceted notion of citizenship.” Democracy, she noted, requires that we think and act like citizens not just on Election Day but every day. She also encouraged students and young adults around the country to embrace and be equipped to use the tools available to them—whether voting, petitioning, through the media or other means—to influence not only the decisions of their local, state and federal leaders but also their fellow citizens.