Do not let the outrage die.
In the wake of the horrific mass murders in Newtown, Connecticut, we've read plenty of newspaper articles, listened to numerous TV commentators and read hundreds of Facebook posts, all with the same message: We need to talk about gun control.
And yet, my biggest fear is that, once the grief and shock die down, so too will the resolve to take, in our President's words, "meaningful action." As Huffington Post polling editor Mark Blumenthal wrote on Friday, interest in gun control spiked after the 1999 massacre at Columbine, but faded within a year:
The post-Columbine bump faded about a year later, and support for stricter gun laws remained roughly constant over the next eight years. Following the 2008 election, however, it dropped off considerably. By April 2010, Pew Research found more Americans placed greater importance on protecting the rights of gun owners (49 percent) than on restricting gun ownership (45 percent).
I beg you: Do not let the outrage die.
We know why politicians are often loathe to put gun control front and center, hiding behind the Second Amendment (which, for the record, was designed to allow citizens to arm themselves against tyranny, not each other), the NRA and the powerful gun lobby, as well as the overwhelming number of Americans who own guns. As Alex Pareene reports in Salon, America "is home to 310 million nonmilitary firearms. That's nearly one gun for every resident of the country, or just about three for each 'household.'"
According to Sunday's New York Times, after Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in 2011, the Justice Department made a list of measures to keep guns away from criminals and those with mental illness -- a list that was predominantly shelved as campaign season approached. And, as the New York Times' Nate Silver reports, over the years, the very rhetoric surrounding firearms has changed:
For opponents of stricter gun laws, the debate has increasingly become one about Constitutional protections. Certainly, many opponents of gun control measures also argue that efforts to restrict gun ownership could backfire in various ways or will otherwise fail to reduce violence. But broadly speaking, they would prefer that the debate be about what they see as Constitutional rights, rather than the utilitarian consequences of gun control measures.
Their strategy may have been working. The polling evidence suggests that the public has gone from tending to back stricter gun control policies to a more ambiguous position in recent years. There may be some voters who think that the Constitution provides broad latitude to own and carry guns -- even if the consequences can sometimes be tragic.
Discouraging news. But what I wonder is why we can't follow the lead of another group of outraged women, Mother Against Drunk Drivers, and, if nothing else, make owning a gun as socially unacceptable as driving drunk. Both can kill.
Could Women Against Guns be as powerful as Mothers Against Drunk Driving?
Obviously, there are other issues at play when it comes to Newtown, where 20 children who likely still believed in Santa Claus were killed by multiple gunshot wounds -- some of them shot as many as 11 times -- in slightly less time than it takes to read this post.
Yes, we need to talk about mental health, to recognize and treat mental illness, no matter the cost. We need to remove the stigma around mental illness so that families are given the acceptance and understanding that would allow them to get their ill children adequate treatment and support. We need to talk about the prevalence of violence in video games, movies and TV shows and its effects. We need to tackle the problems of schoolyard bullies and young people's alienation once and for all.
But above and beyond the why is the how. What turns things deadly is America's easy access to firearms, which makes acting on violent impulses quick, efficient and final. Had Adam Lanza been armed with a knife or a baseball bat, or even a single Saturday night special, how many children could he have killed in the 15 minutes before he was stopped?
I myself have never seen a real gun, except on the belt of a police officer. But I have been privy to the devastation they can leave:
• A neighbor's twenty-something son, suffering from a severe depression, went up to his bedroom and shot himself in the head one evening while his mother was downstairs doing the dishes.
• A beautiful, ebullient, brilliant and bipolar young attorney, after a week of horrendous migraines, shot and killed herself one afternoon while her husband was at work.
• The young son of family friends was showing a playmate his father's hunting rifle when it went off and killed him. Though this happened before I was born, I heard the story over and over, a tale of heartbreak from which the family barely recovered.
In all these cases the firearms were perfectly legal. As were the guns used by Adam Lanza. They were owned and registered to his mother, who apparently kept them in the house.
According to Sunday's Washington Post, Calif. Sen. Diane Feinstein told "Meet the Press" that she would introduce legislation to ban assault weapons at the start of the next Congress. (She sponsored a ban on semiautomatic weapons in 1994, after a mass shooting in San Francisco's financial district. It expired in 2004). It's a good first step. But frankly, it's not enough for me. I won't be happy until we consider owning a gun as socially suspect as getting behind the wheel after a couple of cocktails. Especially if there are kids in the house, or anyone with mental illness.
I know what comes next: When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. Who cares? There will still be fewer guns on the street. And, by all definitions, neither Adam Lanza nor his mother were outlaws.
We have no problem turning drunk drivers or even smokers into pariahs. We would never let our kids hop into a car with an alcoholic at the wheel. But what about playing at the home of a playmate whose dad keeps a gun beside his bed -- a gun designed to protect but, as statistics show, is likely to put the household at greater risk? According to Mark Rosenberg, president and CEO of The Task Force for Global Health, speaking on NPR this past August:
A study that was done to look at whether having a firearm in your home actually does protect you, or whether it puts you at greater risk, showed that families and homes in which there was a gun, not only were they not protected against homicide, but the risk of gun homicide to people in those households was 2.7 times greater than the households without a gun. And the risk of suicide in those households was 4.8 times greater in the households with firearms.
So what can we do? Here's a start:
• Put pressure on our elected officials to take "meaningful action."
• Refuse to vote for any politicians, local or otherwise, who take money from the NRA, and let them know why you will not support them.
• If your community has a gun buy-back program, support it.
• Sign one of the many online petitions floating around the Internet.
I've even heard, via Facebook, of the potential for a "One Million Child March on DC for Gun Control." In the meantime, the most important thing we all can do is keep the conversation going: Mothers were the driving force to get drunks off the road. Can we women do the same when it comes to guns?
Those beautiful first-graders of Sandy Hook were America's children. We are all their mothers.