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Former N.J. Governor James Florio Speaks at Saint Peter’s

As the United States government revisits the issue of gun control due to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, former New Jersey Governor James Florio visited Saint Peter’s University to address this hot topic during a lecture and Q&A session on Wednesday, January 30, in Roy Irving Theatre.

“I have great respect for the University,” Florio said following the event. “I’ve been here on a number of occasions before. So when I got the invitation from my good friend Joseph V. Doria Jr. [speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly from 1990-1992, former mayor of the City of Bayonne and current dean of the School of Education at the University] to speak about a topic that is very close to my heart, I said yes and I am pleased that I did.”

James Joseph Florio served as the 49th governor of New Jersey from 1990 to 1994. He also served as a member of the United States House of Representatives for 15 years between 1975 and 1990. In 1990, Florio signed the toughest assault weapons ban in the country and later vetoed efforts to overturn this landmark legislation. For his leadership, he was awarded the 1993 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.

During his presentation, Florio discussed his thoughts on gun control and explained in great detail ways in which gun control could be addressed in the United States, including limitations, not abolishment, on the Second Amendment; bans on military assault weapons; tougher background checks for anyone applying for a gun license; and greater challenging of The National Rifle Association of America (NRA) – an American nonprofit organization that promotes the rights of citizens to bear arms in the United States.

“This is an important issue that we are talking about today,” Florio said during his speech. “In some respects, I think it’s fair to say that there is an epidemic of gun violence. What thoughtful people are trying to do is to do some things that are necessary to curb this problem of gun violence. That’s what we should be focusing on – gun violence protection and prevention.”

“This is really not about the Second Amendment,” Florio added. “This is more about public health.”

Florio also discussed his experience with advocating for steeper weapons laws while in office. He recalled how he and Doria – a major sponsor of the assault weapons ban in New Jersey when in office – banded together to enforce legislation that would make it more difficult to obtain guns.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session with Florio and Doria. Members of the audience asked the two pioneers of gun control reform questions about the standards for background checks, the rise in gun sales since gun control has come into question, assault weapons buyback programs, safeguarding legal weapons at home, and more.

In regard to a rampant problem in today’s society, one of the University’s students asked the panel about illegal guns, and questioned how government laws would work to solve a problem largely seen in urban areas.

“Once you solve the federal problems, you will then be able to control illegal guns,” Doria answered. “Guns are being bought in places like North Carolina and South Carolina, where you can buy as many as you want without necessarily getting background checks. These guns are then transported to New Jersey and sold illegally in the streets. Once you set a federal ban on this, you can slow down that type of trafficking of guns across state boarders and decrease the number of illegal guns in places like Union City and all over New Jersey.”

The discussion received a lively reception from those in attendance, such as political science student Tamia McCormick ’13, who attended to learn more about the subject of gun control.

“I think it’s common sense that there should be background checks on people who get guns,” she said, “especially living in Jersey City or Camden. I feel like there’s too easy of an access to these types of weapons and there should be some type of regulation to control gun traffic. Law enforcement needs to do their job more, as well.”

Students also reached out to Florio after the presentation to speak with him about his involvement in gun control reform and to learn how they could get involved themselves.

“A number of students asked me how to get involved,” he said. “They can form groups at Saint Peter’s to speak out, they can write op-ed pieces and letters to the editor, and organize themselves for this cause. This is taking place at a lot of the colleges and universities around the state. The overriding majority of people in New Jersey think that common sense ought to prevail, and this is common sense on the side of greater prevention of gun violence.”

Later on in the evening at St. Aedan’s: The Saint Peter’s University Church, an interfaith vigil for peace was held to respond to the recent shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and to recognize how violence deeply permeates society and the world. The vigil for peace gathered the interfaith community to share – through prayer, meditation, music, dance, poetry and more – its faith and peace traditions and texts. Members of the Saint Peter’s community spoke and performed at the vigil, including David Surrey, Ph.D., who gave the keynote address; Rev. Robert Kennedy, S.J., who led a Zen Buddhist reflection; and Wilton Fontenette and Mary Zeoli, who sang with accompaniment by Rachel Wifall, Ph.D. The University dance team also performed.

This daylong event was part of the Faith Alive: Catholic Social Teaching series, cultivated by members of the Saint Peter’s University community. Over the next year, programs will focus on remembering the sacrifices of those in the struggle against inequality, as well as discussing one’s role in taking action in the face of today’s realities. Sponsors of the January 30 program included the Guarini Institute for Government and Leadership, the School of Education, Department of Criminal Justice, Department of Political Science, Department of Sociology and Urban Studies, Office of Advancement and External Affairs, Office of Mission and Ministry, Office of Campus Ministry, Honors Program, Public Policy Program and Social Justice Program.