After Sandy Hook nearly 10 years ago, I was certain that it would be a turning point for gun violence prevention in this country.
Surely, our politicians would not simply offer “thoughts and prayers” when 20 elementary-school children and six adults are gunned down in a place where they should find sanctuary?
I was so wrong.
Since that terrible December day in Connecticut, no significant gun control legislation has passed Congress. Many pretty words were spoken and promises made, but in the end — nothing. And now we are seeing, yet again, the tree of our inaction bear its poisoned fruit.
Nineteen more of our beautiful children were murdered along with two of their teachers at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, last Tuesday. An 18-year-old with a legally purchased assault weapon and 1,600 rounds of ammunition brought terror to the school, city, nation and world.
This latest assault on our humanity came just 10 days after an 18-year-old white man killed 10 Black people in a Buffalo, New York, grocery-store massacre spurred by white supremacist beliefs and racism.
Last fall, I moderated a panel discussion organized by Grandmothers Against Gun Violence and MOHAI (Museum of History & Industry) on the impact of gun violence on children. One of the panelists, Washington Post reporter and Pulitzer Prize finalist John Woodrow Cox, wrote a powerful book on the topic called “Children Under Fire.” The stories of the children in that book left me weeping and will stay with me forever.
One of Cox’s core arguments is that gun violence doesn’t just harm people who are physically injured; the trauma goes way beyond that. These invisible psychological wounds leave scars so deep on friends, family, community members, they can last decades — and beyond. And as he put it in the book, “Gun violence leads to more trauma and trauma leads to more gun violence,” keeping the vicious cycle in motion.
And while mass shootings like the one last week rightly shock and horrify, the steady drip of daily U.S. gun violence largely goes unseen. He noted 60% of students exposed to on-campus gun violence since 1999 were children of color, but since many of those incidents involve accidents or target single victims, they garner way less notice.
As Cox wrote in his book, “What hundreds of thousands of black children in urban environments perpetually contend with, however, seldom generates the same attention or demand for change as rarer school shootings that impact white children in more affluent neighborhoods.”
In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported “firearm related injury” surpassed car accidents in 2020 to become the leading cause of death for children and adolescents aged 0-19.
Last week I talked with Seattle’s Margaret Heldring, a leader and founding member of Grandmothers Against Gun Violence, a Washington-based grassroots nonprofit, about what needs to be done.
Heldring first became active in gun violence prevention after Sandy Hook, when she was having dinner with friends a few days after and they all realized they had 6-year-old grandchildren — the age of many of the children killed. “We just had such a moment of resonance. ‘Oh, my gosh, this could have been [our grandchild], and even if it wasn’t ours, it was somebody’s.’”
She said this moment is “terrible, painful” and can lead to feelings of hopelessness, but we can’t stay there.
“What is the ethos of this country that this is tolerated? Because it makes me and others realize, you know what, on some level, we are making a choice to tolerate this. And that’s the enraging thing,” Heldring said. “So a difference between how I and I believe a lot of others feel right now versus after Sandy Hook, then we were just profoundly shocked. But of course, they’ll do something. Now, people are profoundly angry.”
In recent years, Washington state has made some positive strides in regard to gun violence prevention, Heldring said. In particular, successfully restricting high-capacity magazines — like the ones used in Texas — this year. But more needs to be done. Proposed assault weapons restrictions and a firearms safe storage measure did not pass, for example.
We also need to look at the community disinvestment and erosion of the safety net that undermine public safety at a deeper level.
“I hope that the nation continues to harden its resolve,” Heldring said. “I hope that we learn from the community violence interruption programs that are being funded now that prevention works, that moving the problem upstream to jobs, housing, neighborhoods, actually influence what happens downstream.
“And I hope we understand that the gun violence prevention movement is not out to get guns, it is out to keep people safe. And that the single largest, most powerful element in a gun violence tragedy is access to a gun.”
While the adults dither and wring their hands, young people are standing up for themselves and their own safety.
My 13-year-old niece protested for stricter gun laws outside her Seattle middle school as part of the Students Demand Action walkouts on Thursday.
What are the rest of us going to do?