HAVERHILL — More than a dozen students from Masconomet High School and Pentucket Regional High School took part in a lively discussion on ways to solve gun violence during a talk hosted by state Rep. Lenny Mirra.
The discussion took place on Friday, the sixth anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Mirra, R-West Newbury, opened the meeting with a moment of silence in memory of the victims of that mass shooting.
Jim Wallace, executive director of the Northborough-based Gun Owners Action League, announced his group intends to file legislation, with the support of Mirra and state Rep. Joseph McKenna, D-Webster, that would increase penalties for those convicted of trafficking in opioids and guns.
The illegal trafficking of guns between states was one of the topics discussed and will be on the agenda during the next meeting, which Mirra hopes to hold sometime in January.
Held in UMass Lowell's Innovation Hub in the Harbor Place commercial building on Merrimack Street, it was the second such discussion Mirra has hosted in recent months to bring together people with a range of views to discuss solutions to gun violence.
Representatives from various organizations attended the meeting, including local members of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
Pentucket Regional High School sophomore Megan O'Keefe and junior Alex Borzi kicked off the discussion by talking about a recent survey distributed to the entire Pentucket Regional school district by the Pentucket Students Against Gun Violence group that O'Keefe and Borzi are members of.
O'Keefe said that more than 200 students out of about 700 responded to the survey, which asked a variety of questions including how much students know about gun violence, if they feel safe in school and how supportive they believe their school culture is.
"A lot of what's related to it (gun violence) is mental illness," O'Keefe said. "If you don't have a supportive upbringing and if you're bullied and out-casted ... that's how most school shooters and shooters in general are started."
O'Keefe said her group formed to end gun violence and to give students a voice.
"It's our lives that are being affected and we want to be part of the conversation," she said.
Borzi said one student who responded in the comments section of the survey said "action towards preventing shootings needs to happen as soon as possible."
O'Keefe said the hardest-hitting question asked in the survey was "how safe do you feel in school."
She said five or six students indicated they do not feel safe at all, while the majority said they feel safe but there is room for improvement.
"Sixteen percent of the students (about 35 in all) that responded said they don't think we have a supportive school culture," O'Keefe said. "Seventy seven percent of students said they've stood up for someone they've witnessed being bullied or out-casted."
Mirra referred to the survey as "a great idea" and said bullying is an issue that can eventually lead to gun violence.
"We want to know what we can do to make our schools feel safe for everybody," Mirra said, noting things were different when he was in school. "We didn't have social media, so when we went home, the bullying stopped."
Mirra told the students if there is something the state can do legislatively, or through funding, to bring their ideas to the next meeting.
Masconomet senior Fridahan Basame asked about the so-called "red flag" bill the governor signed this summer which allows family members to petition the courts to suspend gun ownership rights of someone they believe to be a danger to themselves or others.
"Is that only specific for a diagnosed mental illness or is it for any behavior that you witness," she asked.
Mirra explained that the bill refers to any kind of dangerous behavior.
"Anyone who can be deemed an extreme risk," he said.
State Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, told the group that although Massachusetts hasn't had a school shooting in decades, that "shootings are taking place every single weekend in our neighborhoods."
A group of more than 40 representatives, led by Vargas, successfully lobbied House leadership for $10 million to establish the Neighborhood Gun Violence Fund within the Department of Public Health.
Vargas said the three-year grant will support community-based organizations focusing on addressing youth violence with a public health approach.
"The focus will be on communities that are facing gun violence, but perhaps haven't had enough funding or support to do some of the street outreach capacity that is needed to actually reach families that are affected by this (gun violence)," Vargas said. "It's not only folks who are pulling the trigger or are victims, but also people who are on the periphery, the people who are at great risk of falling into that world."
Wallace said a bill his organization plans to file in January seeks to create a new law – An Act Relative to Illegal Drug and Firearm Trafficking – that would increase the punishment for trafficking in guns and opioids.
The proposed law would call for a term of up to life in prison and a fine of not more than $500,000 for those convicted of trafficking in both firearms and opioids.
"The people who are trafficking in guns and drugs aren't just filling their pockets, they're filling graveyards," he told the group.
Wallace also told the group that GOAL is drafting a bill that would create a formal commission to study the needs of mental health care in Massachusetts.
"To our knowledge, there has not been a checklist made of precisely what we need," he said in reference to considerations such as mental health counseling in schools, more inpatient or outpatient facilities for those seeking mental health treatment, and creating a Massachusetts-based suicide hotline.
Wallace said that currently, Massachusetts relies on national hotlines, but needs something much more specific to Massachusetts.
"Not just for people who may be suicidal, but also a system that is available to friends and family seeking to help someone," he said.
Mirra said his next meeting is likely to take place in the evening, as many gun owners who work have expressed interest in being part of the conversation.
"We hope to discuss better coordination between state and federal government on the issue of gun trafficking," Mirra said. "I hope to have (U.S. Sen.) Ed Markey or someone from his office attend the next meeting."