In 1999, after the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, school children in the Philadelphia area started safety drills to prepare for the chance of what is now known as an “active shooter.”
A now 59-year-old Delaware County mother of twin boys who were in different first-grade classes recalled her sons coming home with two very different stories about why they were trained to turn off the lights, lock the doors and sit quietly. One boy’s teacher told the class it was in case a deer broke into the school.
“The other said, while he was eating, ‘That, or some guy with a gun,” recalled the mother, Ina, who declined to give her last name due to receiving threats in the past for speaking out against gun violence. “I didn’t want them to go to school scared.”
But nearly 20 years later, in the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting last week, American schoolchildren, teachers and parents are still just as scared for their safety. In Colorado, some teachers training students for lockdowns supply each student with a “Go Buckets,” containing snacks for a potential hours-long lockdown, and packets of kitty litter, if they need to go to the bathroom. And on Tuesday, Ina and other concerned activists, moms and politicians rallied in Philly outside the office of U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to demand action.
Participants said they want Sen. Toomey to join the movement to curb domestic sales of powerful, rapid-fire guns like the AR-15 that 19-year-old Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz used to kill 18 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. While some activists held posters accusing Toomey of being “complicit” with gun violence, organizers said they actually want his help in ending the scourge of mass shootings in the U.S.
“Because of Toomey-Manchin [a bill to strengthen background checks] in 2013, which failed, he was endorsed by Americans for Responsible Solutions, Gabby Giffords’ group, and Everytown [started by Michael Bloomberg]. He really hasn’t done anything significant since then,” said Rosalind Holtzman, organizer of “Tuesdays with Toomey,” a group that has held weekly protests with varying degrees of attendance outside Toomey’s Philadelphia offices since he won reelection in 2016.
“He ran on that, he won [in 2016] on that. So where is his action? How does he deserve that?” Holtzman asked. “There are people that are just NRA loyalists, and Toomey is a fence-straddler. If not him, who?”
Toomey’s office argued in response that the senator stands out in the GOP for his work on gun issues. Beyond the Toomey-Manchin bill, he also is co-sponsoring the bipartisan “Fix NICS” proposal that aims to strengthen the federal system for criminal background checks before gun sales.
“Senator Toomey’s bipartisan work in support of stronger background checks represent the closest Congress has come to improving gun safety laws in decades,” a spokesman for the office said. “This is why serious gun safety groups, like those led by Gabby Giffords, Michael Bloomberg, and Sandy Hook families, have worked with Senator Toomey and appreciate his efforts. Claims that Senator Toomey has not worked to make progress on common sense gun safety efforts are not true and have been debunked by independent fact checkers.”
Whatever Toomey’s efforts are, activists are likely to keep pushing him and other Republicans toward even more dramatic action.
“Gun violence is a constant source of anxiety as a mayor,” said John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, Pa., who attended Tuesday’s rally. “If you’re a gun-owner, you should want the most responsible gun laws possible, and I think most gun-owners want that. … To reach critical mass, we need to get Republicans on board.”
Fetterman, who ran unsuccessfully in the 2016 Democratic primary for Toomey’s seat and will run for lieutenant governor, is known for tattooing on his right arm the date of every homicide in Braddock since he took office in 2005.
“This one was my first time seeing what assault rifle rounds do to a human,” he said, pointing to a May 2008 date. “Anyone who sees what that does to a human body, and still defends the right to buy them, is just beyond words to me — it’s insane.”