Karen Kent is sitting in the Hopewell Branch of the Mercer County Library. She flips around the rubber wristband she is wearing so I can see that it reads “B.E.N.S Way, Inc.”
It’s mid-November and Kent, from Pennington, is waiting for the start of the monthly local meeting of Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America. B.E.N.S. Way is the name of the nonprofit started by a member of Moms Demand Action who lost her son several years ago to gun violence.
A short time later Reba Holley, lead for the Mercer County chapter, the Mercer County lead, introduces Glenda Torres to the group. “We have a gun violence survivor in our midst,” Holley says, indicating Torres. Torres waves, but stays seated as the meeting continues. It isn’t until after meeting ends that I realize that Torres is the woman who started B.E.N.S Way.
Moms Demand Action was founded by stay-at-home mom Shannon Watts on Dec. 15, 2012, one day after the Sandy Hook mass shooting in which 20 elementary schoolchildren and nine adults were gunned down by a lone shooter. A year later, the organization partnered with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the nationwide movement founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino in 2006.
The group supports the Second Amendment, but believes that “common-sense solutions can help decrease the escalating epidemic of gun violence,” as reads the Moms website. Rather than advocating for gun control, Moms promotes smart gun laws and responsible gun ownership. There is now a nonpartisan chapter in every state of the country.
Holley is the Mercer County Lead for Moms Demand Action, one of nine local chapters in the state. She founded the chapter about 18 months ago; today it has a leadership team of 13, with 160 active members and 1,800 on the local mailing list.
Holley grew in Newtown, Connecticut, well known to many Americans as Sandy Hook Elementary School’s hometown. Holley’s mother was a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary, and Reba attended school there.
Gun violence was always an issue for Holley, but it wasn’t until after the 2012 shooting that she looked for a way to join the movement. She started her membership online and worked tables at events when she could. In February 2016, she started up the Mercer County chapter. Thirty-two people came to the first meeting.
“Everybody was upset about this issue, but nobody knew how to express it,” she said. “This group provides a place them to harness their anger and their need to do something.”
Holley, 54, works as a business development manager for a company that manufactures laboratory instrumentation. She is married to husband Hoyt, and they live in Pennington, where she is a member of the Democratic Committee and also a trustee in the Hopewell Valley Democratic Club. Hoyt is also a member of Moms Demand Action and the couple has three adult children.
At the November meeting, Holley stood at the front of the room, calling on chapter leads to introduce themselves and their current projects. Erika Shor, the events lead, announced the upcoming Sandy Hook commemoration event. Carolyn Sobczak, the social media lead for the chapter and the state, pulled up her Twitter account on the computer attached to a projector to share Tweets with the hashtag #MyMomsDemandStory.
Holley excitedly searched for a few of her favorite posts with members and leaders she recognized. She usually prepares the structure of each meeting beforehand, but says she improvises what she says.
After logistical announcements and introductions were made, Brett Sabo, the Chapter Lead of New Jersey, arrived to give an overview of state laws. New Jersey has the third strongest gun laws in the U.S., she said, but not everyone knows the laws on the application, permitting, and registration process for firearms in the state.
Everytown For Gun Safety is another organization speaking out against gun violence, and Glenda Torres was in attendance as one of Everytown’s Survivor Fellows, who receive training on sharing their story and working for gun violence prevention. Torres lost her son, 23 at the time, in October 2012 when he was killed in a Trenton drive by shooting, leaving behind a son whom Torres is now raising. She lives in Chesterfield.
She had not been involved in advocating for gun safety before her son’s murder. After her son’s death, Torres started B.E.N.S. Way, Inc., a nonprofit scholarship program that provides funding for tutoring and summer programs for students, as well as a scholarship for college students in game design. Her son’s name was Benjamin, but B.E.N.S. also stands for Believe, Educate, Nurture, Succeed.
Torres attends Moms meetings to give a voice and face to gun violence survivors and to aid other parents in her same position.
“Once I started his organization and the violence continued in the city, I [realized] that if I don’t advocate for common sense gun laws and become a voice of what happened, they’re going to continue on,” Torres said. “I want them to see what happens you lose somebody to gun violence, not just the numbers and the data—it does affect you and you live with it.”
Moms uses the category “gun violence survivor” broadly; it can include anyone who has felt the affects of or lost a loved one due to gun violence. Torres said that for her, being proactive includes speaking out about her experience losing her son.
Torres said that most Moms members “have no idea of the loss that comes with [gun violence].” She hopes that they gain empathy for what she and other survivors have been through and that her story motivates more people to volunteer.
“When they hear my story, it gives them more determination to continue the fight,” Torres said. “They don’t want other to experience what I experienced.”
Torres works with other survivors in the city, primarily mothers who lost their children to gun violence. She doesn’t celebrate her birthday anymore, so she said she moved her energy towards planning an event for the survivors instead. She encourages other survivors to stay informed about gun laws in their state even if they choose not to become active advocates.
If the government would close loophole on background checks and private sales, Torres said, she would feel like Moms is making progress.
“But change doesn’t happen over night,” she said. “You have to know it’s a marathon.”
Shor is another member who had not done any activism before joining Moms in September 2016. Born in the former Soviet Union, she has lived in the U.S. since 1992, and in Princeton since 2009. She is a scientist at Rutgers University in the biomedical and health sciences school in Newark, and has two children; both were in elementary school when the Sandy Hook shooting took place.
“Sandy Hook was a big jolt,” Shor said. “I still remember that day.”
It took few months for Shor to get involved, but she soon joined the local chapter and began organizing events. She said the issue became so mind-boggling that she felt obligated to contribute her own effort.
“To me, it’s something so egregious and outrageous, something that could be improved with some fairly no-brainer, common-sense measures,” she said. “And yet because of a certain influence on the government and certain traditions, we put up with these insane numbers of deaths,” Shor said. “Any other cause that would kill 30,000 people a year in the U.S., there would be so much attention and movement and effort to make it stop.”
Most recently, Shor helped plan the Moms’ second Sandy Hook commemoration event in Pennington, an event to make cards for certain people with an audience—celebrities, journalists, politicians—who have used their voices and platforms to promote sensible gun violence prevention measures.
In December, the chapter celebrated the fifth anniversary of Moms Demand Action and Shor, along with the other leads, plans to continue working the tables at Rutgers Day in April and Princeton’s Communiversity in May.
Shor said that the group has already been seeing change at the local and state level. Once politicians begin to turn down money from the NRA and vote the way they want to on gun laws—knowing that they will still be supported—“that’s when things are going to change,” she said.
“For the first time, there is a force opposite the gun lobby that is putting pressure on politicians,” Shor said. “Politicians need to know that people will vote for them based on this issue.”