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After each mass shooting, a chorus of voices rise to say “Enough,” and yet it keeps happening, again and again. In light of the tragedy in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14 and the loss of Guilford High School student Ethan Song only a few weeks before, local residents are slowly starting to realize that maybe, this time could be different.
On Feb. 18, Rev. Sarah Verasco of the First Congregational Church during her Sunday service called on all residents to reconsider gun ownership, to think about what it actually means to own a weapon today. As Verasco prepares to leave the church in March, she asked that members consider relinquishing their guns as a way to honor their time together.
“I think more importantly it’s as a way of examining what it means to own a weapon and what purpose it serves,” she said.
Talking about guns and gun violence is not a new topic for the First Congregational Church, but Verasco said recent events have changed this conversation.
“We are all experiencing the grief of Ethan Song and just the reality that a death by violence happened in this town and then with Florida on top of it, it’s like our hearts were broken open again,” she said. “…If we learned anything in this town in the last few weeks, we learned that the heart and our love for one another is the most significant tool—and I don’t want to use the word weapon, but I will—or weapon that we can use to change anything.”
‘It Was Something that I Needed to Do’
Verasco’s message resonated with a prominent member of the Guilford community, Peter Palumbo, who had already taken action. In the days following the death of Ethan Song, Palumbo, who is heavily involved with youth-centered volunteer work, was a familiar face standing by the family, keeping cameras at bay and offering support. As the memorial and funeral came and went, Palumbo said he struggled to understand what it all meant.
“The loss of a youth, the loss of a child and I don’t know all of the facts, but I do know it’s just such a stupid reason this had to happen, meaning that a gun was left in a place that it shouldn’t have been,” he said.
A few days after the funeral, he said his thoughts began to fall into place. He just kept thinking that if there was one fewer gun, then maybe that accident wouldn’t have happened, a realization that was hard to reconcile with the fact that he, Palumbo, owned a gun.
“I was embarrassed to say that ‘Peter Palumbo owned a gun’ because the community just got through putting me in a place to be a connection to this family and to be there for support for this family,” he said. “But Peter Palumbo owned a gun and I just couldn’t seem to put those two things together.”
Palumbo owned a handgun that he had locked in a safe in his office. He didn’t carry it and it was “really just for target practice,” but he said he knew he just couldn’t have it any more. He took the gun to the police and surrendered the weapon.
“It was something that I needed to do…I want one less gun out on the street,” he said. “It felt like it was the least I could do to make a statement about what happened in this community.”
A Generation Defined
What happened in town and what happened in Florida has moved not only adults, but students as well. Ella Zuse, a freshman at Hopkins School, a private school in New Haven, said she heard Verasco’s service on Feb. 25 and started thinking about what she and her fellow students could do. Pleased to find many of her classmates felt the same, groups are forming to participate in marches, assemblies, and to contact school officials and politicians.
“I think the message that I have heard many of the survivors say is that this needs to be the last time this happens,” she said. “School shootings are now something I think about more often because of what keeps happening. I don’t remember thinking about them much when I was younger.”
Zuse said she remembers the day the Sandy Hook shooting happened. She was in the 4th grade at Cox Elementary School and she remembers recess being cut short and students herded inside. She remembers when new security measures were put in place at the entrance of the school. Now in high school, she said there are shelter-in-place drills every two months—a sad reality that she said needs to change.
“I know as students we are young, but I think we have a unique opportunity to help create change with an issue that affects us,” she said. “I want adults to be honest with students and I also think the adults should be taking student’s opinions seriously. I think we have all seen with the example of Florida that students have valuable opinions and are capable of making a difference.”
The Rev. Dr. Ginger Brasher-Cunningham of the First Congregational Church said she commends Verasco for trying to inspire new ways to talk about gun reform and said, “one of the biggest things we can do is follow the lead of our youth right now.”
Verasco, in encouraging people to reconsider gun ownership, encouraged people to turn their guns over to an organization called RAWtools, a religious organization that takes guns and turns them into garden tools.
“This is the time to speak,” she said. “…I do hope it creates a tipping point because the more courageous a few can be the more courageous others can be.”
March for Our Lives
As cities around the country plan for gun reform marches, Guilford resident Frank Blackwell started a post on Facebook to see if any residents might be interested in a local march. The post took off, with hundreds of residents liking and sharing the post. Blackwell said the idea is to give people who might not be willing to travel to Hartford or Boston or New York a place to peacefully demonstrate.
“A message that I want to put out is that this is a peaceful demonstration that speaks directly to better gun legislation in America, not just Connecticut, but America,” he said. “Everybody should carry their own sign and everybody should read everybody else’s sign and everybody should respect what is written on everyone else’s sign and peacefully march.”
Details concerning the route for the march are still in the works, but Blackwell said he is in contact with the police, who have been very helpful. Additionally, Blackwell said he hopes to see high school students from all of the local high schools, including Branford, Guilford, and Madison come out and march or even speak.
“I think that it’s important to get the high school kids in at least these three communities the opportunity to also have their voice heard,” he said.
The local March for Our Lives is currently planned for Saturday, March 24 at 12:30 p.m. in town. The route is still being determined. To keep up with updates, visit https://www.facebook.com/events/374945472973807/.
At the Feb. 20 Board of Selectmen meeting, First Selectman Matt Hoey said Blackwell had been in touch with his office to help with planning. Hoey said he has been asked to possibly speak at the event and encouraged all selectmen to join in if they would like.
For those interested in turning unwanted firearms to the Guilford Police, residents are asked to call the department at 203-453-8061 so an officer can assist with properly transporting and turning over the weapon to the police.
Once a firearm is turned over, the guns are sent to the state, a check is run on the gun to ensure it wasn’t involved in a crime, and then the gun is destroyed. Residents cannot walk into the Police Department with the weapon and must have a permit to transport to drive the weapon to the department.
“We would never say ‘No’ if someone wanted to get rid of a gun,” said Police Chief Jeff Hutchinson. “People can just call and ask if they have a question or concern.”
The Guilford Police Department can be reached for non-emergencies at 203-453-8061. To learn more about RAWtools, visit rawtools.org.
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