Jalen McDonald from Springfield speaks about his experience with Roca Inc. and how easily youth in some communities have access to guns.
Reminder Publishing photo by Trent Levakis

HOLYOKE — Orange shirts popped in the sunlight outside City Hall as dozens gathered on June 3 as the city hosted a gun violence awareness observance.

Members of the public, city officials, members of Roca Inc. and people whose lives have been affected by gun violence spoke on the need to act and combat gun violence during the event.

Many also called on the community to continue the fight to get meaningful gun legislation passed. Event organizer Anne Thalheimer, a survivor of gun violence herself, spoke about how her experience has shaped her dedication to gun control and leads the group Every Town for Gun Safety.

As a survivor of gun violence that also took the lives of her friend and professor, Thalheimer has been devoted to combating gun violence any way she can as a citizen.

“I carry them with me every day along with the four other folks who were wounded and survived,” Thalheimer said.

Lynn Horan spoke during the event about her mother who was the victim of an attempted murder over 20 years ago. Due to a weapon malfunction her mother lived, but her mother still lost a friend to gun violence from the same man who attempted to take her mother’s life.

Horan explained her mother’s friend’s killer suffered from schizophrenia and was not receiving the proper medical attention. She added laws creating checks in place that properly limit people with mental illness from accessing guns and assisting those with mental illness through treatment address the root of many shootings.

“He was not getting treatment for it. He had an assault record,” Horan said. “These things go on and on and so I became an advocate thereafter for mental health care — one of many, many reasons part of the root of the problem. And also making sure that we have safe gun laws that do not allow someone that is ill like that to be using a firearm, especially with an assault weapon as well … we need to look at Congress, don’t just write our mayor. It’s great he’s out here but as he conveyed himself there are only so many things he can do.”

The event comes within a year of deadly gun violence in the Holyoke and Springfield areas including the October shooting in Holyoke that took the life of an unborn baby and injured the mother, as mentioned by Mayor Joshua Garcia during his comments. Garcia spoke on the consistent heartbreak not only the local community has faced but the nation overall from gun violence over the years.

“Time and time again we are horrified and heartbroken by gun violence in our city and cities across the nation. We thought — I thought — our Congress would have acted in 2012 after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting,” Garcia said, before listing multiple other infamous school shootings in the last decade across the nation. “We all know here not much has changed. The legislators of our federal government, their inability to bring real change to this issue has put pressure on local governments everywhere.”

Garcia added due to this reason, he finds himself having to explain to many worried constituents that the best he and the community can do is invest in ideas and initiatives that they think can prevent or minimize gun violence. He added the least he wanted to do was bring any divide into the community over the discussion of gun control, but still felt there was work to be done in gun control measures as Congress has left little option.

“Until our Congress develops the will to face the gun lobby, the shooting will unfortunately go on,” Garcia said.

Many members of Roca Inc. were present for the observance with their orange shirts on loud and proud as the color has become representative for gun violence awareness through the Wear Orange campaign and to celebrate the day of awareness.

“It is truly an epidemic at this point. And part of what we wanted to do with wear orange was not only recognize that but to put a human face and remember and honor those that we loved who have been taken from us, those who have been wounded and survived, those still living after the effects of gun violence because you do not come out of it the same person that you were before it,” Thalheimer said.

Roca Inc. is a social services group meant to help engage young people and others who are at the center of urban violence and help get them on the right path. Springfield teen Jalen McDonald spoke and said from his life experience he has seen it is far too easy for youth to access illegal guns.

“A lot of people that are young my age they grew up in the streets and that’s all they really know,” McDonald said. “A lot of people don’t know but it’s kind of easy to get guns in the streets. It’s real easy to buy them, to get access to them. I feel like the cops need to do a better job with trying to get guns off the streets.”

State Sen. John Velis (D-Westfield) praised the work done by the state legislature to stop gun violence but was adamant the most crucial part to combat involved focus of prevention.

“Everything is tied together. Prevention, mental health, stricter gun laws, whatever it may be. You can’t talk about some but not other parts of it,” Velis said. “I think that we need to do so much better at, and in Massachusetts we need to do so much better at, is prevention. Why is it that so many young men and women feel they need to turn to the world of gun violence that is out there? We spend so much time after the fact, criminal justice reform — well why don’t we make to so the individual never is exposed to the criminal justice system?”

Velis urged people to contact senators and Congress representatives in order to encourage action to combat these acts of violence.