More than 200 people came to voice their opinion about gun control, addiction, mental health and school safety at Wednesday afternoon's forum held at Brookdale Community College in Middletown.
The public hearing was one of three being conducted by the Governor's NJ SAFE Task Force to collect public input into the issues.
The majority of the attendees spoke out against recent proposed legislation that would put limits on gun and ammunition ownership. They defended their Second Amendment right to bear arms, spoke earnestly about their responsibilities to protect their families, and pleaded for changes to NJ's restrictive gun laws.
Throughout the two-hour hearing, only a few expressed anti-gun opinions. A representative of One Million Moms Against Gun Control made a comment against allowing school personnel to carry guns in school but was heckled by the pro-gun crowd, which prompted an admonishment from the task force's co-chairman, Peter G. Verniero. She left the meeting, accompanied by police escort.
Rev. Kevin Nunn of the The Asbury Park Neptune Ministerial Alliance pleaded for help from the many government and police officials in the room to rid his neighborhood streets of guns, including AK-47s and even grenades. "I will tell you that as a pastor I’ve buried more children in past two years I could ever think of burying," he said. "My question is, is there anyone I can speak to in this room who is willing to help us to get these guns off the street?"
Several people expressed their concern about the state's responsibility to care for the mentally ill, especially in the face of tighter budgets, changes in Medicare, and the closure of Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital in 1998 and Hagedorn Psychiatric Hospital in Glen Gardner in 2012.
A tearful mother held the room in rapt attention as she read a statement about her fear that her mentally ill son will hurt someone -- as he had already assaulted his own parents. She explained how her son had been in the care of nine psychiatrists since the age of 7, but needs help in his adult stage of his life. "My message has been consistent. He is capable of violence," she said. "It's been suggested to us to 'let him hit bottom,'" she said, to gasps in the crowd. She said sadly, "Some violence is inevitable."
Moments after she took her seat, a representative of the Governor's office quietly came to her side to confer with her, and take down her information.
The members of the panel were:
- Former Attorney General and Associate Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court Peter G. Verniero (Clinton Township in Hunterdon County), Co-Chairman
- Former Attorney General John J. Degnan (Chester Township in Morris County), Co-Chairman
- Dr. Manuel Guantez, LCADC, Chief Executive Officer, Turning Point, Inc. (Fairfield in Essex County)
- James Romer, Monmouth County Services Director, Monmouth Medical Center (Howell in Monmouth County)
- Evelyn Sullivan, Managing Director, Daytop Village of New Jersey (Manahawkin in Ocean County)
- Dr. Brian Zychowski, Superintendent of North Brunswick Township Public Schools (Mendham in Morris County)