In August 2013, Rockne Newell killed three people and injured three others at a Ross Township supervisor meeting. He was armed with a .223 Ruger rifle and a .44 magnum. He was angry with the supervisors over a land dispute.
Last year I began serving as a supervisor in Ferguson Township. Our decisions and ordinances aren’t distant in D.C. Traffic calming, speed limits, sidewalk construction, soccer field approval and housing development directly affect people’s quality of life. Unsurprisingly, people get heated at supervisor meetings. The discord and high emotions can make decision-making a little harder. But it cannot silence or destroy our deliberation.
However, the presence or threat of a gun can. I know it does. Last year, a man came to some meetings alleging that his Second Amendment rights had been violated. A gun that he possessed was seized by the police. He omitted the fact that he was a convicted felon who had lost his right to carry a firearm.
The first time he spoke, he became agitated, especially as he talked about guns. The second and third times he spoke his agitation built up. I believe he was inches from threatening us, dangling the possibility that our actions or lack thereof on his requests could lead to some kind of violence. Whether this individual had a right to a gun or not was immaterial at the time. The mere threat of a gun was chilling on good governance.
Each of the nights that he spoke, he remained in the audience as we deliberated. I watched him and wondered what my fellow supervisors, staff, and members of the public would need to do if he pulled out a gun. A woman I know well was in attendance with her five-year-old son. In the age of mass shootings, including the rampage in Ross Township, I was scared. Would we run? Would we tackle him? Would one of us die? Would police intervene in time?
But these are the thoughts of a stressed person narrowing their decisions because they can’t attend to all of the details. And they are not the thoughts of someone who is safe. These are the thoughts of someone under threat. This is compromised governance.
We’ve since had active shooter training. That’s helpful. But it doesn’t address the underlying issues. Are we willingly compromising our freedom of speech, of assembly, and our right to petition the government by allowing guns into so many places including government offices? And as Rockne Newell in Ross Township proved, our gun laws are lax enough, that we could have been the next victims.
An overreaching reading of the Second Amendment threatens our exercise of the First Amendment and good governance. I don’t pretend to believe there’s an easy way to get through this problem, but we do need to do it.
Peter Buckland is a lifelong resident of the Centre Region. He has served as a Ferguson Township supervisor since 2016.