By JESSE WINTER
For The Leader/Times
AREA — Tony LaPorta, a long-time Westfield resident and father, like so many Americans, experiences extreme sadness every time he sees a mass shooting on the news.
What has become commonplace in American society since the Columbine shootings in 1999, notes Mr. LaPorta, follows a predictable cycle of sadness, despondency, anger, blame and then political inaction after public attention moves on to the next national headline.
All the while, politicians and lawmakers fail to enact meaningful laws protecting people from gun violence, argues Mr. LaPorta. Serious discussions on gun control and gun-reform legislation, including background checks and assault-weapons bans, will leave the minds of many Americans, and lawmakers, only to return as an urgent topic of conversation when the next mass shooting inevitably strikes somewhere in the United States.
“Like the vast majority of Americans, I’m horrified when these things happen,” said Mr. LaPorta. “But what do people do? They pray, they lower the flag; politicians give speeches, everyone says we need to do something about this. Americans are upset for two weeks and then nothing happens.”
It was the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., leaving 17 killed and another 17 wounded, that drove Mr. LaPorta to formulate a course of action that he believes could result in real change, and keep the fight for common-sense gun reform a topic of serious consideration beyond the news cycle and what he describes as the short attention span of the American public and lawmakers.
“This has been going on year after year after year. I said to myself, ‘I have to do something. What can I do as a private citizen?’” asked Mr. LaPorta.
A former Westfield councilman who served on the dais in the ’90s, the answer for Mr. LaPorta was getting elected officials and other politicians from New Jersey on his side — to petition the federal government for significant gun-control laws backed by the “collective force of citizens.”
This meant getting different levels of the American system, such as the municipal, county and state governments, to memorialize a resolution urging Congress to take action by protecting the public from the threat of mass shootings and other gun violence.
As Mr. LaPorta pointed out, its his Constitutional right to petition the government, and also his right as a citizen to enlist other levels of government, such as his local town council, county officials or state legislators, to petition the federal government.
“It’s about one level of government petitioning another level of government,” Mr. LaPorta explained, and by doing so, his petition holds more weight.
Mr. LaPorta partnered with a lawyer friend, and together, they wrote the first draft of their gun-control resolution, which outlined, in detail, the nature of the “public-health crisis” caused by a lack of effective gun-control laws on the federal level.
It also laid bare, in sobering details, statistics that include more Americans having been killed by guns domestically, since 1968, than have died in all the wars in which the United States has been engaged combined, beginning with the Revolutionary War.
The resolution also urged the federal government and Congress to revert back to Clinton-era assault-weapons bans and to implement criminal background checks for all gun sales.
But those are only a few of the clauses in a resolution that has evolved significantly since it was drafted by Mr. LaPorta and his friend.
Mr. LaPorta was very successful in having his petition taken up by local government entities. His first breakthrough was with Union County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Al Mirabella and the Union County Commissioners (then the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders), who thought it was a great idea and jumped on it, according to Mr. LaPorta. The board adopted Mr. LaPorta’s resolution in 2019.
Although Mr. LaPorta was disappointed to hear Westfield was not interested in introducing a memorial-style resolution, he was undeterred. Other municipalities, including the City of Elizabeth and the towns of Plainfield and Linden, eagerly met and listened to Mr. LaPorta’s advocacy for his memorial-style resolution.
Following the county’s lead, Elizabeth and Plainfield memorialized the resolution, with Linden actually folding the resolution into a mayor’s proclamation.
As Mr. LaPorta said of the success of his resolution, “I was on a roll.” The next step would be to petition the New Jersey Assembly and Senate.
Mr. LaPorta’s resolution was met again with enthusiasm, and was making real headway into getting introduced into New Jersey’s lawmaking body.
State lawmakers such as Assemblywomen Linda Carter and Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Assemblyman James Kennedy sponsored Mr. LaPorta’s bill. They further helped and refined its language and principles to become Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 20 (ACR-20.)
But for all of Mr. LaPorta’s success getting his resolution to the final level of local politics, New Jersey’s legislature, and having the force of municipalities and county government backing his petition — Covid-19 struck in 2020, and as Mr. LaPorta noted, the resolution hit the back burner as the health crisis caused by the pandemic commanded the attention of lawmakers.
Today, in 2021, Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 20 (ACR-20) has yet to be introduced, and according to Mr. LaPorta, who has spoken to different lawmakers in Trenton regarding the bill’s path forward, the power to get ACR-20 introduced lies in the hands of New Jersey Assembly Speaker and Democrat Craig Coughlin.
The Westfield Leader and The Scotch Plains-Fanwood Times reached out to Speaker Coughlin’s office regarding an update on Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 20 (ACR-20).
“The committee and voting schedules have not been set, and so the resolution still remains under review and consideration,” said Cecilia Williams, spokesperson for the Speaker Assembly Majority Office, New Jersey General Assembly.
But to this day, Mr. LaPorta remains as determined as ever to see the resolution he gave birth to pass New Jersey’s legislature.
Speaking to The Leader, Mr. LaPorta offered a call to action for those who want to see meaningful gun-control laws become a reality in the United States.
“Every poll I have seen shows overwhelming support for what is contained in (ACR-20),’’ said Mr. LaPorta. “Supporters should contact their Assembly representative and ask them to back ACR-20,” he urged.
Also, he encouraged supporters to contact the Speaker of the Assembly and demand he allow ACR-20 to be sent to the Judiciary Committee and then sent to the Floor of the New Jersey Assembly for a vote.
“Lastly, supporters can contact Governor Murphy’s office and ask him to discuss with the Assembly Speaker to allow ACR-20 to proceed,” said Mr. LaPorta.
Regarding local municipalities, he advised citizens to “talk to their mayors and council members. Give them ACR-20 and ask that the local governments adopt similar resolutions to add support to the voice of the people.”
Moreover, Mr. LaPorta implored the voting public to “demand common-sense gun legislation by having our local and state representatives give the Congress a strong message,’’ he said. “I believe in our system of government, but at times it needs to be primed in order to work.”
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