Editor's note: this article has been changed since its original publication to reflect a correction.
Though Lynn Classical High School’s auditorium was only half-full for Saturday’s panel discussion on gun control, there was plenty of emotion and passion throughout the nearly two-hour gathering.
The discussion, co-hosted by Congressman John Tierney and Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, included panelists Peabody police Chief Robert Champagne; Liam Lowney, director of the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance; Robert Joss from Salem’s Psychological Consulting Services; Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday; Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins; Lynnette Alameddine of Saugus, whose son Ross was killed during the Virginia Tech shooting; Lynn School Resource Officer Robert Ferrari; Wenham resident Ann Krantz, representing Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America; John Rosenthal, founder of Stop Handgun Violence; and Lynn police Chief Kevin Coppinger. About 150 people attended the event.
“The district attorney and I welcome a fulsome discussion about what form of action might be consistent with the Second Amendment and give us all a sense of better protection and safety,” Tierney said before the discussion began.
“This is democracy in action,” Blodgett said. He asked that people remain respectful and civil during the discussion, saying, “That’s what this country is about.”
As speakers on the panel responded to questions posed by Blodgett and Tierney, the audience often erupted in applause, with some even shouting at some points.
A remark by Rosenthal calling the availability of guns in other states like New Hampshire and their use in mass shootings “out of control” inspired outraged boos. After a panelist’s comment that Massachusetts has always had either the first- or second-lowest number of gun fatalities in the nation, an audience member shouted, “That’s a lie!”
Tierney had to call for respectful dialogue to continue several times during the event.
Some of the panelists spoke from personal experience with gun violence. Alameddine urged listeners to take action against gun violence by supporting common-sense regulations that would not infringe on Second Amendment rights.
“As a mom, I have to be thinking of gun violence every time I send my child to first grade,” said Krantz. “I don’t think that that’s an acceptable way to live, that any of us should live with that fear.”
After the panel discussion was finished, people sitting close to the aisle immediately jumped up and formed a long line behind the microphone.
Most representing the interests of gun owners against gun control were older men who identified themselves as members of the NRA, with only a few young men asking questions or making statements against more gun control. Many came prepared with folders containing quotations, statistics and scripted statements against gun control. As one man against gun control left the microphone, he called out to those behind him in line, “If anyone needs statistics, I have them here!” Two men against gun control even filmed each other speaking at the microphone.
Others advocated for what they called “rational, sensible” regulation. Most of the women who stood to speak are mothers or teachers in support of stricter gun-control laws.
“No one wants criminals to have guns,” one woman said. “No one is trying to take away the Second Amendment. But I feel I have the right to send my baby to first grade and not have them filled with bullets.”
After the event, Bob Young, 66, of Manchester-by-the-Sea said Second Amendment rights were the issue. Assault rifles are used for competitions, hunting and target practice, he said, including matches with the Civilian Marksmanship Program. He added that assault rifles are “a lot of fun to shoot. I have one, and everyone who shot it, they loved it.” The only way to prevent mass shootings and accidents, he said, is to educate children in schools about gun safety and release information about people with mental health issues to the federal government.
Swampscott resident Gail Brock, 68, said she wanted to speak because “NRA members were intimidating and aggressive and got up quickly to defend themselves. They sat in aisle seats, videotaped themselves and took notes.” But she said the event was successful and that “comments were equal on both sides.”
Some decided to attend because the recent mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., touched their lives in some way.
“My mother, who is 86, summers in Sandy Hook,” Susan Gould Coviello, 55, of Essex said. “I became very interested in gun-control issues after Sandy Hook.”
She also said she was “disheartened” by the lack of politeness during the discussion but otherwise felt the event went well.
“Everybody needs to become educated about gun violence in America, and just because Congress says something is hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible,” she said.
Afterward, Tierney also said the event was successful, but “too many people apparently don’t want to hear or believe that their rights are being respected.” He emphasized that public health and safety are the goals of efforts to prevent gun violence.