There was an almost constant collecting of index cards in Hendricks Chapel Tuesday evening, each containing a question on the issue of gun violence in America. The questions were for five panelists participating in what was billed by Syracuse University as a discussion, not a debate, on gun violence in America.
The evening did turn out to be a calm talk on guns, full of facts about the ups and downs of gun violence and gun ownership in America and here in Syracuse.
On stage to field the questions were Scott Armstrong, a former lobbyist for the National Rifle Association; Helen Hudson, Syracuse Common Councilor and past president of Mothers Against Gun Violence; Dr. James Knoll, a forensic psychiatrist at SUNY Upstate Medical University; and Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at SUNY Cortland. The event was moderated by Syracuse University political science professor and WRVO contributor Grant Reeher.
Also taking part in the discussion was keynote speaker for the evening Stephen Barton. Barton graduated from Syracuse University last spring and spoke at commencement. While on a cross-country bike trip last summer, he was wounded during the Aurora, Colo. movie theater massacre. He has since begun working for Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
He told the audience of about 100 the story of how he ended up in Aurora, his memories of the shooting, and what he's been doing since.
He says it is possible to have a civil discussion about gun violence, which, as he put it, is not a urban issue, or gang issue, or minority issue, but an American issue.
"We all care about our families," he says. "We all care about our loved ones and we’re all just talking about the best way to keep our children and other people [as] safe as possible."
Armstrong, the former NRA lobbyist, told the crowd he couldn't compete with Barton's emotional story, but he could offer facts about gun owners in America.
Like many gun rights advocates, Armstrong is upset with the new laws New York put in place following the December shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn. But he says most gun owners are law-abiding citizens and it's wrong that the new laws, which ban certain types of gun and ammunition clips, suddenly make some of those gun owners criminals.
"If we’re really serious about controlling gun death through gun violence, what do we actually do about it?" he asks. "I’m not sure landing hard with restrictions on guys like me is the way to get there."
The percentage of Americans that own guns has decreased in the past 60 years from about half to about a third, according to statistics offered up by professor Spitzer.