When the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting shattered news headlines in 2018 and broke the hearts of thousands, Montclair State University student Elena Perez decided that it was time for a change.
On Nov. 12, Montclair State held a series of salon-style conversations hosted by Brigid Callahan-Harrison, professor of political science and law, along with Perez as the guest speaker.
“After Stoneman Douglas, we as a country started realizing that the gun violence epidemic isn’t normal,” Perez said. “It doesn’t happen in other first world countries like it does in America.”
Perez founded the Bergen County chapter of March for Our Lives in the days following the Stoneman Douglas shooting. She proudly holds the position of New Jersey state director.
March for Our Lives’ mission is simple: “To harness the power of young people across the country to fight for sensible gun violence prevention policies that save lives.”
Throughout the series, Harrison and Perez touched on social issues regarding mental health awareness, women’s rights issues, racial LGBTQ equality and gun violence prevention.
“I want them to leave talking about what they can do — they can get behind gun violence prevention or any other movement,” Perez said. “I think that having our young people or peers involved in any issue is so important to our country.”
Gun violence was a key point during the series. Perez emphasizes that March for Our Lives does not want to overturn the Second Amendment, and it is not their desire to eliminate all firearms. Instead, March for Our Lives supports a federal ban on all assault weapons and high capacity magazines.
March for Our Lives believes that reducing gun violence requires a multi-faceted approach. They advocate for extreme risk protection orders, a multi-step gun purchase approval process and the appointment of a National Director of Gun Violence Prevention, among other things. Background checks are also an essential component to this plan.
These background checks would require people to go through criminal record checks, verification of past employment and education before purchasing a firearm weapon. New Jersey has this law in place, but the senate has blocked it from becoming a nationwide reform.
“Gun reform legislation has passed through congress, but Senator Mitch McConnell won’t vote on it,” Perez said. “He’s bought out by the [National Rife Association] (NRA) so he’s told not to act on these issues.”
The NRA exerts a strong hold on many politicians in the United States. According to opensecrets.org, in 2018 the NRA donated 98% of their funds to the republican party and the other 2% was left for Democrats.
“I want to have these conversations as human beings,” Perez said. “Gun violence does not discriminate. This has to be made a bipartisan issue.”
As New Jersey state director of March for Our Lives, Perez must travel throughout New Jersey and help cities and towns facing different problems.
Perez mentioned that having access to more mental health services will help gun violence, but that is not the entire solution. Mental health reforms along with universal background checks will be a step closer to ridding the country of gun violence.
“35,000 Americans die each year because of gun violence,” Perez said. “About 50 women are killed every month in the [United States] from being shot and killed by an intimate partner.”
For Perez and members of March for Our Lives, those types of statistics are not acceptable. Perez highlighted the importance of young Americans going out and voting, especially in the upcoming 2020 election.
Virginia, particularly, saw a large increase in young people voting during the recent midterm elections. March for Our Lives hopes this will motivate other young Americans to vote as well.
Perez urges people to find something they are passionate about and become involved, whether that be on social media or through an organization like March for Our Lives.
“When having a conversation with people who disagree with you, don’t start with statistics right away,” Perez said. “Tell a story. People are a lot more moved by stories.”
March for Our Lives has a heavy social media presence and sends out email updates and hosts lobbying events.
To learn more about March for Our Lives visit their website at marchforourlives.com and read their Peace Plan.