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Sunday, June 17 Local

Greenwich women form Moms Demand Action chapter to fight gun violence

GREENWICH — Michele Voigt and Jen Barro had never met before, and besides both being Greenwich mothers with two young daughters each, they weren’t much alike. Voigt is a painter with a background in the non-profit world; Barro is a physician.

But the two moms found out they had more in common than they thought — a deep concern about gun violence, and the lock-down drills that their kids routinely go through to prepare for an “active-shooter” scenario in their schools.

“To have my second grader go through a lock-down drill, it’s chilling,” said Barro.

“For children to have to practice this, in elementary school, it’s mind-blowing,” said Voigt.

“Shameful,” added Barro.

The two moms are group leaders of the new Greenwich chapter of Moms Demand Action, which held its first community meeting earlier this month, attended by about 60 people. A librarian who survived the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, Mary Ann Jacob, gave a talk to the volunteers.

The non-profit organization, which advocates for legislation to diminish gun violence and improve gun safety, appears to have tapped into a groundswell of energy on the issue.

“People are tired of ... having a sense there isn’t any political, legislative action to solve this problem,” said Barro.

Walking around central Greenwich recently with bright red T-shirts emblazoned with the “Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America” logo, the two leaders got positive reactions from passers-by.

“It always invites a conversation,” noted Voigt.

The group and its supporters are hoping to invite more conversation on the topic of gun violence in early June, when the local chapter takes part in the national “Wear Orange” campaign.

The campaign began after the shooting death of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old who performed at President Barrack Obama’s inauguration, in 2013. Her friends wore the color in her honor in subsequent demonstrations against gun violence. Moms Demand Action is encouraging people to wear orange on Friday, June 1. The local group is holding a rally Sunday, June 3, from 1 p.m to 5 p.m. in Byram Shore Park.

“It’s visible, people notice, you stand out,” said Barro. “It’s to make people aware what a huge problem we have in our country. Ninety-six Americans die every day due to gun violence. We want to make the public aware of that, and recognize the people affected by it.”

Barro had never been an activist until the shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February. She was struck by an interview she heard with the founder of Moms Demand Action, Shannon Watts, a mother from Indiana, in which she spoke about “getting off the sidelines.”

“That really resonated with me, and I felt it was time for me to lend my voice,” the mother and physician said. “I just got frustrated with the cycle of mass shootings, and thoughts and prayers, and political inaction.”

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Voigt has a background in public policy and has been involved in activism and advocacy before. But she said she never felt as strongly about a cause as she does now.

“I know exactly the moment that it hit me, that I had to become active in this cause. It was after Parkland,” she said. “No matter what I do, in my professional or artistic career, if I can’t change this — kids getting killed on the street, in schools — nothing else I do matters.”

Moms Demand Action has a number of statewide goals, as well as national ones. In Hartford, the organization is looking to prevent the sale of “ghost guns,” weapons made from kits that can be bought without state-mandated background checks.

The group’s national goals include mandatory background checks for all gun owners, and more “red flag” laws that allow law enforcement to intervene in cases in which individuals have made threats or displayed dangerous behavior with guns. Connecticut and five other states have some form of “red flag” laws on the books, and bills are now pending in 22 states.

The group is also looking to block a bill that would allow reciprocity for conceal-carry permits among states, including ones that require little training or administrative oversight, far less stringent than Connecticut regulations.

Moms Demand Action assists survivors of gun violence with services, and it aims to improve rules for proper storage and handling of firearms. The anti-violence activists — membership is not restricted to women or mothers — are also looking to create a “score card” for candidates seeking elected office based on their positions on guns.

The local chapter can be reached at GreenwichMomsDemandAction@gmail.com. The national website is www.momsdemandaction.org.

The local organizers are looking to work with high school students in the community.

“We have momentum, and so many people running for office, and a lot of people on the ground,” said Voigt.

They aren’t the only side of the gun issue with momentum, however. Though Connecticut is considered to be among the states with the strictest gun laws, the firearms industry grew by 9 percent here last year, adding 800 jobs, far outpacing the industry nationwide, which grew by a much more modest 0.3 percent in 2017, according to an annual report compiled by the Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation.

“I have noticed more small gun shops are starting to open,” Scott Wilson, president of the state’s largest gun owners group, the 30,000-member Connecticut Citizens Defense League, told Hearst Connecticut Media earlier this month. “And there has been another tremendous increase in pistol permits, which creates a larger market for people to buy guns and other merchandise.”

The NSSF has argued that new laws passed in Connecticut after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre caused the gun industry here to lag behind the rest of the nation. Its report indicates that trend turned around in 2016.

“It just goes to show that whatever laws our legislature passes, people still want to be able to own guns and still want to shop for firearms,” Wilson said.

To the local Moms Demand Action leaders, the numerous school shootings since Parkland, including the massacre in Texas last week and middle school shooting in Indiana Friday, are all the reminder they need about the realities they face.

“There’s more work to be done,” said Voigt. “It’s disappointing, being an activist, working hard to prevent this, and it continues. Kids were shot in their school again. It hits you in the gut — it’s where you’re putting in your time, passion and your energy. But you’ve got to show up the next day and keep going. There’s so much more work to be done.”

The group aims to meet monthly, with another community meeting planned for June 27, at a location that has yet to be confirmed.

rmarchant@greenwichtime.com

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