Some of the many residents who attended a public forum with State Sen. Paul Mark and State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli at the Sheffield Town Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 29. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

Gun violence main topic of discussion at community forum

While multiple topics were discussed at the public forum, including the voting procedures that were part of the failed school district merger, along with environmental issues, the most discussed topic at the over-one-hour forum was gun violence.

Sheffield — More than 100 residents from throughout Berkshire County attended the “ReMarks and Refreshments” public forum on Wednesday, November 29, at Sheffield Town Hall. The event was a public forum with State Sen. Paul Mark and State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli to discuss pressing issues facing the area.

“My district is larger than the state of Rhode Island,” Rep. Mark said at the beginning of the event. “It is the largest legislative district in the history of Massachusetts. [This event] is an effort to try to keep in touch with as many people as possible, because with a district of this size, it is extremely difficult to get around and get to know everybody on a one-to-one basis. Over this two-year term, I will be able to get to every town that wants to discuss something and be able to do so [at these events].”

From left: State Sen. Paul Mark and State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli at the Sheffield Town Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 29. Photo by Shaw Israel Izikson.

While multiple topics were discussed at the public forum, including the voting procedures that were part of the failed school district merger, along with environmental issues, the most discussed topic at the over-one-hour forum was gun violence. “I have a very broad question about gun violence and restrictions on certain kinds of guns,” Sheffield resident Pat Levine said. “What’s going on and what can be done?”

State Rep. Pignatelli said that representatives in the State House of Representatives passed “An Act Modernizing Firearm Laws” back in October. The bill includes the strengthening of the state’s assault weapons ban, along with a ban on “ghost guns,” which are unserialized and untraceable weapons that can be purchased or built without a background check. The bill also includes new limits to where guns can be carried, and an expansion of the state’s red flag laws, which permits the state’s courts to order the removal of firearms from a person believed to present a danger to themselves or others.

“The bill might be somewhat controversial with some people in this room and around our history, but I think [the bill] makes a lot of sense,” State Rep. Pignatelli said. “[The bill] is now in the State Senate, and they may have a different iteration of their views on guns.”

Rep. Pignatelli said that there were 17 shootings in Berkshire County last year. “This year we have only had one shooting in Berkshire County,” Rep. Pignatelli said. “We have some very tough laws on the books right now. We just need to get the district attorney, policemen, and the judges to enforce the laws that we already have on the books. One shooting is a very big difference from a year ago. The difference is that we’re enforcing the laws that we have on the books right now.”

Rep. Pignatelli said that, despite state laws, the state is seeing a huge increase in illegal guns in Berkshire County. “These illegal guns are coming up from Georgia into the Berkshires,” Rep. Pignatelli said. “If you see some of the gun situations we’ve had in the local newspapers recently, you’ll see that [the illegal gun owners] had no [Firearms Identification Card], and the guns were unregistered.”

While Rep. Pignatelli said that he favors stricter regulations on guns, he explained that he is “a big believer” in the Second Amendment. “We represent a lot of sportsmen here in western Massachusetts,” Rep. Pignatelli said. “When it comes to the Second Amendment, I’d be willing to bet you more people died in the Revolutionary War reloading the muskets. Now we have machine guns, armor-piercing bullets, we have the adaptations of bump stops on guns. I’m not a—We have to have laws that keep up with technology as well. I don’t think anybody should be afraid of any laws we are changing.”

A resident who did not identify herself at the meeting said that any gun laws should include regulations about air guns. “I was shot last year by an air gun in the head,” the resident said. “I now have a bullet lodged at the base of my skull, and the person who did it is still running free, and it’s my next-door neighbor. That weapon was not confiscated several years before that when he tried to blow up his house. I want to know if there can be some laws that when somebody does something, like threatening to blow up their house, all weapons be removed, that can harm somebody, including BB guns. I have health problems from this, and I have post-traumatic stress disorder. And I had that before I was shot. So now I have like extra PTSD to deal with.”

The case, according to the resident, “is in the District Attorney’s hands, but it’s not going anywhere yet.” However, she added that he has been charged.

“I’d say that [case] qualifies under the red flag laws,” State Sen. Mark said. “Someone using a dangerous weapon to assault someone else, even if it was a slingshot. That’s exactly who we want the red flag laws to apply to.”

Retired Great Barrington Police Officer Kevin Larkin proceeded to talk about his personal experiences in dealing with gun violence.

Larkin was the officer on the scene at the December 14, 1992 mass shooting at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. Gunman Wayne Lo, who was a student at the college, killed a student and a professor, and injured four people with his SKS semi-automatic rifle. Larkin was the officer who talked Lo into surrendering to the police.

“[Lo] got his gun through the mail,” Larkin said. “It would be much easier if we had a universal [federal gun] law and not a state-by-state law. If they can’t have it, they can’t carry it. I’m not a fan of guns, but I think everybody has a right to own a weapon. That came about because of [the American Revolution] and people had to defend their properties, but now we have police officers who do that.”

Larkin said that he equates the problems with gun regulations to steroids in baseball. “There’s always going to be cheaters, and the cheaters are always going to find a way to beat the law,” Larkin said. “That’s just the way it is, but we have to be smarter than that. But can anyone out there tell me why a civilian has to own an AK-47? An AK-47 is built for killing people. Why would anyone buy an AK-47 to shoot a deer? I think the problem is not at the local level, but the state level.”

One week after the community forum, on Wednesday, December 6, a bill in the U.S. Senate that would have reauthorized the Assault Weapons Ban failed. The Assault Weapons Ban Bill was passed in 1994 and expired in 2004, and it covered certain semi-automatic firearms and large-capacity ammunition magazines.