Dana Kellerman (second from right), policy director for Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence, explains the process of submitting a letter to the editor. Listening to her, from left, are Michele Feingold, Lynda Wrenn and Arlene Weiner. Photo by Ann Belser.

Gun fatalities are usually single deaths, but nothing puts attention on the issue of the proliferation of firearms more than a mass shooting, Dana Kellerman, policy director of Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence, pointed out during a recent forum on gun control.

“Mass shootings make up a tiny sliver of gun deaths, but everybody here can turn around and look at the back of the room,” Kellerman said, pointing out the line of news cameras. “They really bring us most of our media attention because somehow they are more shocking to us than the gun deaths that occur in all of our communities every day.”

The forum was part of the activity that has surrounded the trial of the man accused of fatally shooting 11 worshipers inside the Tree of Life Synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018. The federal trial is set to begin Tuesday morning with opening arguments.

Kellerman, a member of Dor Hadash, which is one of the three synagogues that shared the building when the shooting occurred, responded to the attack by joining other members of her congregation to form Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence, a program of CeaseFirePA. The group works closely with Moms Demand Action, a national gun control organization.

“Our mission is to do all that we can to prevent further mass murder and to prevent other communities from experiencing the grief and the loss that we did,” she said.

On May 10, the group gathered community members at Rodef Shalom Synagogue to provide a lesson in lobbying.

State Rep. Arvind Venkat (D-McCandless) addresses a meeting of Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence. Photo by Ann Belser.
State Rep. Arvind Venkat (D-McCandless) addresses a meeting of Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence. Photo by Ann Belser.

The featured speaker was state Rep. Arvind Venkat (D-McCandless) who worked as an emergency room physician before running a campaign that was unflinchingly in favor of gun control. In the general election, he defeated a pro-gun Republican candidate for the seat that hasn’t been held by a Democrat since the 1960s.

Emergency room workers, Venkat said, see the carnage of gun violence and it sticks with them.

“I’ve told these stories to my colleagues, to my constituents, to my community, to say why I honestly believe that passing gun safety legislation is an absolute public health imperative,” he said. “We no longer have the choice of saying that this is an acceptable situation where a mass shooting happens. We all are stunned and shocked and of course, convey our thoughts and prayers. We learn about the victims who every day could be one of our neighbors and then we’re supposed to go on our merry way and say that nothing happens.”

Venkat, along with Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Squirrel Hill), provided encouragement to the group to write to their state representatives and for them to ask friends and family to write to their own representatives calling for support of a gun control legislation package that Venkat pointed out would not affect responsible gun owners.

The bills call for safe storage of firearms, mandatory reporting of lost or stolen guns, universal background checks before gun purchases, and a red flag law in which guns could be temporarily removed from the home of someone who is considered to be a risk to themself or others.

“We know, by overwhelming evidence, that red flag laws do save lives, and they are supported by an overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians,” Kellerman said.

Film still from “Repairing the World: Stories from the Tree of Life” by Patrice O’Neill courtesy of JFilm.

Last September, there was polling on the gun control package that showed that each of the four bills is strongly supported by voters.

“We know that 87% of Pennsylvania voters support safe storage laws. … That’s a huge consensus,” Kellerman said. “This should be easy.” 

The type of shootings that the safe storage laws prevent are the cases in which small children find a gun and shoot their siblings or the incidents in which school students obtain their parents’ firearms to bring to school or to commit suicide.

As to the background checks, Kellerman said that has 95% support.

“That is everybody except a small small fringe, and the [National Rifle Association].”

She added that while voters in the state support gun control, primary voters tend to skew to the extremes so for Republicans particularly, support for gun control can put their reelections at risk when they are up against more extreme opponents.

“When we are talking about background checks, when we are talking about red flag laws, when we are talking about safe storage laws, when we are talking about reporting lost and stolen firearms, none of those pieces of legislation do anything to a responsible gun owner,” Venkat said.”Even people who are staunch gun rights and gun advocates feel very strongly that we have to have the responsibility that goes along with these rights.”

Ann Belser is the owner of Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh's East End communities. After receiving a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she moved to Squirrel Hill and was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 20 years where she covered local communities, county government, courts and business.