by Ahona Dam and Julian Phillips, Centerfold Editors
graphic by Julie Wang
On March 16, eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent, were killed in a racially motivated mass shooting in the Atlanta area. Merely six days later, 10 people died in a supermarket shooting in Boulder, CO, and mass shootings have continued to occur regularly, including a Florida shooting on May 30.
According to ABC 7 News, since 2010, there have been over 400 school shootings across the country, a problem intrinsically linked to gun violence. According to the Washington Post, the U.S. has experienced higher rates of gun violence-related deaths in 2020 than any year in the past two decades. Especially this year, people have witnessed the impacts of both the pandemic and gun violence which have added to feelings of isolation and anger.
As the country reckons with continued gun violence, the topic of gun control has garnered political attention. In Newton, concerned community members and government officials have expressed disapproval of a recent proposal to open a gun store, Newton Firearms, on 709 Washington Street. While Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and members of the Newton City Council sought to prevent the store from opening in its current proposed location, gun advocates have responded with concerns over the constitutionality of such a ban.
Community members have also expressed concerns for safety due to the gun store’s proximity to local gathering areas, such as Cabot’s Ice Cream & Restaurant, Newton North High School, three elementary schools and one middle school. In response, the Newton City Council proposed specific zoning regulations to ensure that the store is some distance away from homes, schools and certain public areas.
During a May 10 public meeting, the Newton Department of Planning & Development detailed the Firearms Zoning Amendment, which includes a 150-foot buffer from residential properties and a 1,000-foot buffer from K-12 schools and other public spaces.
In a June 2 City Council meeting, the Amendment was approved in a 23 to one vote. Three locations in Newton, not including 709 Washington Street, are outside of the Amendment’s restrictive buffering.
While Newton Firearms already has a temporary stop work order from the Inspectional Services Department, the Amendment immediately and permanently prevents the store from opening at its current location. However, the store could file a successful lawsuit and remain at 709 Washington Street, or relocate to one of the three locations and apply for a special permit, both difficult processes.
More than 500 people attended the May 10 public meeting, including Ali Wolf, the founder of the Stop Gun Stores in Newton Facebook advocacy group, and gun rights advocate Susan Huffman. Wolf created the Facebook group on April 15 and currently it has around 2,000 members seeking to receive updates on zoning changes regarding the gun store.
Prior to the public meeting, Wolf started an online petition to stop Newton Firearm’s opening, a cause that collected approximately 10,000 signatures; she said that the tremendous support caught the attention of the mayor and city councilors. Wolf said the timing of the gun store proposal was unfortunate, especially in consideration of the pandemic and recent surges of gun violence flooding national headlines.
“We’re coming out of a pandemic where gun sales are soaring, but [so are feelings of] anxiety, fear and depression,” she said. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”
While Stop Gun Stores in Newton has gained notable momentum in the community, gun advocates have expressed disfavor to the city’s efforts to restrict gun sales. Huffman said that the Firearms Zoning Amendment is a violation of the First and Second Amendments and that the Constitution protects Newton Firearms. She said that the gun store would benefit Newton financially as well.
“They’re trying to shut this perfectly legal, constitutionally protected business, trying to keep it out of Newton,” she said. “These things are taxed, and there’s a sales tax that goes to the city, so why shouldn’t those tax dollars be right here in Newton?”
Wolf said that the interpretation of the Second Amendment is more complicated than it seems.
“The way that we have interpreted it to mean that any individual in our society has the right to own a gun is different than what was implied by the initial amendment,” she said.
Newton residents and workers across the political spectrum have questioned whether community reactions to the Firearms Zoning Amendment match the public consensus. English teacher Kelsey Dornbrook said that regardless of vocal dissenters, the best decision is the one that matches the majority of the public’s opinion.
“As long as the majority of the citizens of Newton are against opening the gun store, then the government should have power to do what the citizens want,” she said.
Huffman, however, said that she felt underrepresented in the public meeting as a gun advocate, a feeling she said was expected given the political culture in Newton.
“There are a lot more pro-Second Amendment and pro-Constitution people that are here in Newton that just don’t want to speak out because of the climate in Newton,” she said. “If you’re conservative, and if you’re pro-Constitution, you’re on the outside in Newton, so people tend to not want to speak up for fear of being ostracized.”
Freshman June Kim said that while everyone should be free to voice their opinions, there are certain limitations when turning speech into action.
“We’re free to say that this business isn’t welcome in our town, but there’s nothing we can do to stop the business from opening if it wants to open,” she said.
The origin of the Second Amendment contributes to a public debate over individual rights. The history of the amendment reveals the power imbalances that were present between the government and citizens and continues to protect individual rights today.
The Second Amendment, one of 10 amendments in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, was ratified by Congress in 1791. It states that “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
During the American Revolution, militia referred to groups of men who protected communities, colonies and, eventually, states. Militias proved to be insufficient against the British, so in response, the Constitutional Convention granted the federal government the power to organize a standing army.
Anti-Federalists feared that the government might abuse its power and deprive states of the right and responsibility to protect themselves. After the Constitution was ratified, Congress established the Bill of Rights. Among the ten amendments, the Second Amendment appeased both Anti-Federalists and Federalists by ensuring that the government had no authority to disarm its citizens. It empowered state militias and granted citizens the right to feel safe and prepared in times of danger.
While Congress intended for the Second Amendment to be used in the context of organized militias, present-day gun restrictions focus on individual rights.
In 1967, the armed Black Panther Party marched on the California State Capitol to promote Black gun ownership. Governor Ronald Reagan and the National Rifle Association (NRA) advocated for the passing of the Mulford Act, a bill banning open carry of loaded firearms. While the act initiated a series of laws that would make California have some of the strictest gun laws in the nation, it drew parallels to a time when white elites viewed Black slaves as a threat. The already-held fears of the elites were amplified when slaves possessed firearms.
Reagan and the NRA’s support for gun control under racial pretenses proves that the gun debate has become more convoluted since Madison’s time.
In a city like Newton, which is overwhelmingly affluent and liberal, senior Laila Polk said that the debate surrounding the opening of a gun store brings up questions of inclusiveness and progressive values. She said that by allowing gun stores to be in less affluent areas, legislators are disproportionately affecting neighborhoods of color.
“The question becomes, well, where do you want it?” she said. “Do you want it in a poor neighborhood that can’t organize to fight this and doesn’t have [the resources] to do so?”
Recent increases in gun violence across the nation have contributed to a wide range of reactions among students to the proposed opening of Newton Firearms. With many still grieving and processing these events, Newton Firearms’ attempt to open during this time is shocking, Kim said.
“From a business standpoint, I don’t understand why they’re trying to open a gun store in the midst of all of these shootings,” she said. “They’re going to get negative views on their business because of the recent events, so I don’t understand why they’re trying to open this store at such a sensitive time.”
Despite negative and confused reactions from students like Kim, other students, like senior Damian Mathews, have a neutral stance on Newton Firearms. Mathews, leader of the Political Discussion Club, said that he would be generally unconcerned if the gun store opened.
“People will have a right to protect themselves, and people should have that right and be able to exercise it,” he said.
Senior Maya Zeldin said that while she opposes the idea of a gun store, she realizes that the public can’t override the law.
“Legally speaking, there’s no reason why someone can’t own a gun,” she said. “We can criticize it all we want, but the only way we can stop [the store] is if we change the law, and that’s not going to happen anytime soon.”
Polk said that the city should ensure that Newton Firearms follows safety protocols if the store opens. She said that it is crucial to be safe and mindful of surrounding locations.
“As long as you know how to use a gun, you’re trained to use it safely and you don’t have any mental illnesses, you will operate it safely,” she said. “I have no objections to a gun store in the middle of nowhere, but I do have an issue with putting a gun store so close to elementary schools and family-centered places.”
The rise in school shootings over the past two decades has further inflamed tensions regarding the accessibility of gun stores. While Newton Firearms would have been subject to strict regulations under federal, state and local law, Newton North senior Coral Lin said that the proximity of Newton Firearms to North would lessen her feeling of security regardless.
“I would feel a little bit on edge,” she said. “If something were to happen outside of school, I’d feel very vulnerable because there’s not too much you can do from inside the school to prevent that.”
While the debate around gun control has been historically multifaceted, commonalities exist between all sides of the Newton Firearms debate. According to WBUR, the perception of division makes Americans believe that the country is more politically divided than it actually is.
Regardless of conflicting viewpoints on the opening of Newton Firearms, teachers and students are working towards fostering a safe environment as school transitions back into normalcy. Dornbrook, an active member of the South Human Rights Council (SHRC), said that multiple support systems within the building construct safe spaces for students to voice their opinions.
“Building a safe environment means providing support, so counselor support and guidance, but also support in the form of student groups and clubs and affinity groups,” she said. “If there’s a group of students that wants to take action, then doing that through a club or the SHRC is a good way to make the community aware about issues and start a conversation about them.”
Mathews said that he moderates discussions surrounding both national and local politics in Political Discussion Club meetings. He said that while discussions will continue, changes within the city, such as if Newton Firearms had opened, are inevitable and often only somewhat important.
“Usually a good amount of people show up from both sides of the discussion, so usually we have some fruitful debate,” he said. “Things change as Newton grows, and it’s obviously going to start to have some things that it did not in the past.”
As Newton grapples with vocal concerns and rapid policy changes among local officials, Polk said people should be reasonable when making decisions that will have lasting impacts on residents and the city.
“As long as you’re really smart about it and we’re not walking into this afraid, then we can make good decisions,” she said. “If we’re walking into these decisions blind and afraid, then the chances that we make a bad decision go up exponentially.”