A City Struggling With Gun Violence Confronts The Firearms Manufacturer In Its Midst

Students rallied outside Smith & Wesson to pressure the company and claim a voice for communities where gun violence extends far beyond school shootings.

More than 100 people gathered Wednesday outside the Smith & Wesson headquarters in Springfield, Massachusetts, to pressure the firearms manufacturer to join the gun violence debate that has swept the nation following last month’s mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.

The group of students, educators, community members and clergy came from across the state to join the rally, where some held up a sign telling Smith & Wesson to “stop selling assault weapons.” The company, the largest U.S. gun manufacturer in 2016, makes the M&P 15, the AR-15 style rifle the gunman used in Parkland. It sells hundreds of thousands of them each year.

The event was scheduled to coincide with a national school walkout to protest gun violence on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting. Attendees wanted to bring Smith & Wesson into the discussion about gun reform and to speak up about the unique problems of gun violence in urban communities, said organizer Tara Parrish of the community group Pioneer Valley Project.

Guns and gun violence are both facts of life in Springfield. The city was the site of the nation’s first armory, founded by George Washington in 1777, and has housed Smith & Wesson since the gunmaker’s inception in 1852. The company remains one of the largest private employers in western Massachusetts today.

Springfield’s relationship with firearms may be historic, but it also has a darker side. There were 68 shootings that ended in injury or death in the city last year, the police department recently told HuffPost.

Rarely do these two issues overlap in conversations among city leadership, said Parrish. But she believes younger residents may finally be starting to do their own analysis.

“I think that now, in this moment, young people are saying, ‘Wait a minute. This is in our backyard,’” Parrish said.

One of the group’s demands is to meet with Smith & Wesson CEO James Debney within 30 days to discuss ways the company can help address gun violence. Among their proposals would be to recall the M&P 15 and to establish a compensation fund for communities affected by gun violence, said Parrish.

“The frame of this is to add to the conversation around what it means to be a responsible company at this moment,” Parrish said. “Just being a company that profits off these products isn’t sufficient, given the outcomes that are often caused by their products.”

Pioneer Valley Project hadn’t received a response to their request for a meeting as of Wednesday. A spokeswoman for Smith & Wesson’s holding company, American Outdoor Brands Corporation, didn’t immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.

I think that now, in this moment, young people are saying, ‘Wait a minute. This is in our backyard.' Tara Parrish, Pioneer Valley Project

Parrish also said she’d heard from students in the Springfield area who had felt left out of the current campaign regarding guns in America. While student activists from Parkland ― an affluent, majority-white suburb of Miami ― have been leading the movement over the past month, the voices of students from more urban and diverse cities have sometimes been omitted.

“Our young people are tired of being invisible on this issue. We have a particular perspective and that perspective is not being seen by the country,” said Parrish. “It’s sort of like it comes back into view when it’s suburban white kids, but it’s not in view when it’s us.”

Most students in Springfield don’t support the idea of addressing school shootings with increased security, said Parrish. Many schools have already installed metal detectors, and the idea of putting more guns in classrooms seems like a bad idea to them.

“A lot of these students are safest and feel safest when they’re in school,” said Parrish. “They get their breakfast and their lunch. They’re in a structured environment with supportive adults, and it’s really the walk home where they kind of have to steel themselves a lot of the time, because that’s where they may encounter gun violence.”

Among the speakers at Wednesday’s event was Hussein Abdi, a student at Springfield Central High School. He addressed the crowd, expressing concern that people had become desensitized to shootings. Abdi wanted to remind everyone, including the Smith & Wesson executives in the building behind the crowd, that “every single person who gets shot is someone’s kid, someone’s friend.”

“We are here together today because Smith & Wesson needs to see us and know that they can’t hide from us,” he said. “They need to do their part to make sure my siblings are safe and everyone in the community is safe as well from gun violence.”