BRANFORD, CT — Although Monday’s town hall discussion with Branford High School students and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal was advertised as one that would tackle a myriad of topics, it was clear from the start that the issue of guns in would dominate.
In the hour-plus discussion at Branford High School, Blumenthal fielded more than a dozen questions from students. Two-thirds of them had to do with the issue of gun safety and their concerns for their own safety.
Blumenthal told the students he has been impressed by the gun control movement in the wake of the February 14 shooting at Majority Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Seventeen people were killed and 17 more were wounded, making it one of the world’s deadliest school massacres. Nikolas Cruz, 19, who legally bought a semi-automatic weapon that was used in the shooting, has been charged with 17 counts of murder.
“What I’ve seen has made me feel the same way that about the civil rights movement and other similar movements,” Blumenthal told the students. “This movement has been powered and fueled by young people.”
“You are what is different,” Blumenthal told the students.
Asked about the Second Amendment, Blumenthal said: “I respect the rights of people to own guns but they do not include weapons of war that are designed to kill people. These weapons are not being used for hunting and recreation.”
Another student asked Blumenthal: “How could the FBI fumble the Parkland shooting so badly?”
The student was referring to media reports that the FBI was tipped off about Cruz, including one tip the FBI received a month before the shooting, which included information that he owned a gun and had talked of committing a school shooting.
Blumenthal told the students about the so-called “red-flag” law he is working on co-sponsoring and how it may help prevent future shootings like Parkland.
Connecticut was the first state in the nation to have a “red flag” law. Enacted in 1999 after an employee of the Connecticut Lottery used a knife and gun to kill four bosses, Connecticut’s law allows two law enforcement officers, or one state’s attorney, to petition a court for a firearms restraining order.
But it does not allow family members or friends to petition the court, unlike other states that have approved, or are considering, red-flag laws.
Five states already have similar laws, and Florida is moving toward approving one.
Blumenthal and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, are taking a different approach. Instead of giving grants to states that establish red-flag laws, the Blumenthal-Graham legislation would establish a federal red-flag law and use federal, not state courts, to seek gun violence restraining orders.
Among the Branford high school students listening to Blumenthal on Monday were students who organized a recent school walkout over the lack of political action on gun control issues.
They liked what they heard from the senator and they also believe that politicians are hearing them and what other young people are saying.
“Washington has been reaching out to students since Parkland,” said Andrew Debenidictis, who said he believes younger people can and will be heard even louder after the midterm elections in November.
“I just wish I could vote,” Debenidictis said. “I’m going to be a month too young.”
Two other Branford gun control march organizers — Abby Boyle and Mary Olearczyk — said they are happy that Branford school officials have taken specific actions since the Parkland shooting to try to make students safer.
“You can only use the front and back doors to enter the school now,” Boyle said. She said that wasn’t the case before the Parkland shooting.
While guns and shootings did dominate the conversation, the students also brought up other issues with Blumenthal — including a couple of questions about the opioid crisis that has plagued Connecticut and the rest of the country.
Blumenthal told the students a story about how he, as a parent of four, dealt with the opioid crisis.
“My kids were athletes as I’m sure many of you are,” Blumenthal said. “And my kids would get injured, have surgeries. At the end of a surgery doctors would usually give them a bunch of pills — 30 days worth.”
“What we would tell my kids,” Blumenthal told the Branford students, “is good luck, you are not getting any (pills),” telling the students his children needed to heel without opioids.
The senator also said, as a country, the opioid crisis needs to be pushed up higher on the food chain, stating that the additional funding President Donald Trump and Congress has spent on the crisis “is not even a pittance.”
“We need to provide more money, more treatment, more education — and legislation that would place stricter rules on the manufacturing of these drugs,” Blumenthal said.