This is the first part in an ongoing series of posts that focus on educating about various hot button issues and how they impact women and moms.
Two recent shootings in Orlando. The first one–last Friday after a concert–resulted in the death of a former The Voice contestant, Christina Grimmie. This horrifying shooting, that occurred as she was signing autographs, could have resulted in much greater carnage had her brother not tackled the shooter. In retrospect, however, the Grimmie shooting seemed like foreshadowing for last night’s unfathomable massacre at an Orlando LGBT nightclub, in which a single assailant killed 50 and wounded another 53 with an assault-style weapon, making it the worst mass murder in US history. Gun violence continues to wreak havoc on and terrorize our country like none other in the developed world. It’s thus well worth taking a look back to see how we reached this point in time where frequent mass shootings have become the new norm and how women and moms can help.
Following the 1994 midterm election, when progressives and Democrats everywhere woke up to a Congress that had changed hands overnight, there was a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking, a lot of hand wringing, and a lot of finger pointing. Many believed–right or wrong–that what made the difference was that Congress had passed and then-President Bill Clinton signed into law the assault weapons ban earlier in the year, as well as the Brady Bill the year before. At that time, this legislation was a major coup, and the powerful gun lobby known as the National Rifle Association (“NRA”) sprung into action, spending big bucks to ensure that members of Congress who had voted in favor of the law (primarily if not solely Democrats) lost in the midterm elections.
When the dust had settled, the NRA had accomplished two important things: (1) the most progressive members of Congress up for reelection, and who believed that reforms were necessary to reduce gun violence in our country, lost to more conservative Republicans, resulting in a new GOP majority in Congress, and (2) at that point forward, incumbents or politicians running for public office would think long and hard about going against the will of the NRA. The NRA had won a major victory and common sense gun regulation would not be raised again for many years. When the time came for the assault weapons ban to be renewed in 2004, Congress and GOP President George W. Bush let it die, an unfortunate outcome given the current statistics showing that mass shooters have possessed these weapons over half of the time and when used they tend to result in higher casualties.
After the 1994 bloodbath, politicians considered backing, or even mentioning, the concept of gun violence prevention to be nothing short of “political suicide.” In the meantime, the state legislatures that had previously attempted to make strides in gun law reform, particularly in areas with high crime rates such as the District of Columbia, faced certain push back by the NRA. In the District of Columbia v. Heller case, D.C’s stringent handgun ban faced staunch opposition by NRA-hired attorneys, who challenged the law all the way up to Supreme Court.
The NRA’s lawyers argued that the Second Amendment, which provides, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” somehow meant that individuals have a constitutionally mandated right to own guns. In 2008, Antonin Scalia and a Supreme Court made up of a majority of justices appointed by Republican presidents, sided with the NRA and, by a 5-4 decision, struck down the D.C. handgun ban as unconstitutional. The damage ultimately extended well beyond this limited circumstance, however, as the NRA and more conservative state legislatures around the country used this decision to justify a variety of laws aimed at making it even easier for individuals–even terrorists, convicted felons, mentally ill, and domestic abusers– to obtain, carry, and use guns. The Supreme Court in 2010 did indeed determine that Heller applied also to state and local laws, thus extending the reach of the original decision.
Consequently, during the reign of terror by the NRA, not only were politicians afraid to support common sense gun legislation designed to reduce gun violence, but also GOP politicians in the pocket of the NRA worked to loosen the ties even further. Incredibly lax gun regulation, coupled with giddy gun manufacturers, led to a dramatic proliferation of guns in this country. Even the NRA had at one time said that there should be common sense measures put in place, such as universal background checks. The original NRA, however, was intended to be an association that represented gun owners in this country. Over time, that changed, as increasingly greedy and wealthy gun manufacturers turned the NRA into a massive lobbying machine that cared first and foremost about maximizing income to gun manufacturers with little to no thought or care given to what was done with those guns after they were purchased.
The story of the gun industry is not a new one. Other major U.S. industries have similarly become so greedy and so rich and so powerful that they could dominate politicians with their agenda and thus get away with murder (both literally and figuratively). A couple prime examples include the American auto and tobacco industries. People within those industries knew that they were manufacturing and selling to consumers very dangerous goods, yet failed to make changes to protect consumers. Why? All they cared about was their profits and, moreover, they were not adequately regulated by the government.
Take the Ford Pinto case. Ford knew that the Pinto was unreasonably dangerous and could have recalled the cars sold and made modifications but discovery in a case brought against the company revealed that they had engaged in a callous cost-benefit analysis showing they came out ahead financially by just paying off those injured or killed by their defective product. The auto industry also fought hard against putting available but somewhat costly safety features in their cars–features that we now take for granted, and are mandated by law, such as three point seat belts and air bags. Likewise, prior to a seminal suit brought against cigarette companies that uncovered what the companies knew about the dangers and addictive nature of cigarette smoking, the industry marketed cigarettes to minors–remember Joe Camel?– in the hope that they would get hooked at a young age and become lifelong smokers, thus spending millions of dollars on cigarettes (and much more likely to develop deadly lung cancer as a result).
Unlike these other industries, gun manufacturers with the help of the NRA shield themselves from such glaring scrutiny by wrapping themselves in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as now defined by the Supreme Court. In fact, there is now on the books a terrible federal law that provides immunity to gun manufacturers against suit for damages caused by their product. This law is virtually unheard of in the arena of consumer goods and, essentially, since the gun manufacturers have the deepest pockets, leaves individuals with no recourse when their lives are destroyed as the result of gun violence.
In the meantime, common sense and viable safety measures, such as a biometric gun lock with a fingerprint sensor also known as a smart gun (think the iPhone and it’s use of similar technology to unlock the phone), have been dismissed by the gun lobby (a parallel with the auto industry’s aversion to mandated safety features), nor utilized by the vast majority of gun manufacturers (an exception: the intelligun) though it could save countless lives. Another parallel, this one with the tobacco industry, is the gun manufacturer’s attempt to market firearms to children by making them look more like toys, with colors like hot pink and designs, and utilizing cute cartoon creatures in advertisements (see images))
Rather than make us safer as touted by the gun lobby, the proliferation of guns led to an alarming uptick in the rate of deaths due to guns in this country. Politicians looked away or swept under the rug the shocking statistics for fear of retaliation by the NRA. In 1999, after a major mass shooting that resulted in 15 deaths and 20 more wounded took place at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, gun control advocates had the ear and sympathy of the greater public for a time. Up against the NRA, however, they ultimately did not have a chance. The NRA was an extraordinarily wealthy and powerful lobbying organization by now, and regular citizens who were shocked and dismayed by this shooting in a public high school were neither organized, nor nearly as wealthy.
After Columbine, however, it became abundantly clear to anyone paying attention (and not a gun manufacturer) that something had to be done. High school students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had been able to scheme and plan a mass murder they carried out at their school, and develop their own arsenal of multiple weapons with relative ease, without their parents even knowing anything about it. Political activist and screenwriter Michael Moore filmed a documentary about the massacre entitled “Bowling for Columbine” that was released in 2002. As interest in the case faded over time, the NRA continued, largely unabated, their quest for loosened gun restrictions, advocating for state and local laws like concealed and open carry in public places, such as college campuses, bars and restaurants, and movie theaters.
The carnage continued. Between Columbine and Sandy Hook—the horrific massacre of 20 young children and six of their teachers in their own elementary school—there were five more mass shootings in public schools and on college campuses, including the deadliest mass shooting of all time (until yesterday’s nightclub shooting) at Virginia Tech in 2007, when 32 were killed and 24 more were injured by a student. Other public places where people gathered became increasingly dangerous. In 2011, Gabrielle Gifford, a congresswoman from Arizona and gun owner, was shot and seriously injured at an outdoor public forum, that killed 6 people and wounded 13 others. Just as the shooting of James Brady, Ronald Reagan’s press secretary in 1981, led to a long, drawn out battle for common sense gun law reform such as background checks (the “Brady Bill”), so too did a shooting of one of Congress’ own, in a state with one of the least restrictive gun laws in the country.
Then came the 2012 shooting at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. A mentally ill man, who managed to amass many firearms and 6,000 rounds of ammunition, walked in to the theater, and opened fire, killing 12 and injuring 56. A similar incident happened in Lafayette, Louisiana at a screening of the movie, “Trainwreck,” in 2015. Also recently, a white supremacist gunned down 9 African-American men and women in their church in Charleston, South Carolina, a blatant hate crime by a young white man who loved guns almost as much as he loved the Confederate flag. All told, there are on average 289 people shot by a gun every single day in this country, and 86 of those Americans die.
Statistics or even high school and college shootings are one thing, but no one mass murder galvanized the American public more than the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. The shock of so many young children (20 kindergarteners and first graders, and another 6 adults) gunned down in their own classrooms shook many to their very core. Moms led the foray, immediately organizing a grassroots group on Facebook under the leadership of Shannon Watts, an Indianapolis mother of five. Many moms and other concerned citizens, including grieving families from Sandy Hook traveled to DC a month later on a freezing cold day to march on the National Mall demanding improved gun safety laws.
The power of grassroots organization via social media became clear, as Watts’ group, Moms Demand Action Against Gun Sense in America, not only grew in number of members, but also evoked memory of an earlier group formed by concerned mothers: Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). MADD had led to reforms of the criminal justice system by holding drunk drivers more accountable for their actions behind the wheel. The hope was that Moms Demand Action could effect similar change regarding gun laws in this country. Other groups also formed in the wake of Sandy Hook, including a group of concerned mayors such as the mayor of New York City, Mike Bloomberg, known as “Everytown for Gun Safety.” Gabby Giffords’ group, “Americans for Responsible Solutions,” also led the fight for gun law reforms. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gained a powerful new voice in Colin Goddard, one of the students injured in the Virginia Tech mass shooting.
Well-organized, motivated, and increasingly wealthy, these groups together pushed hard to enact common sense gun laws, such as universal background checks. The NRA would not be defeated, however, and the push back was decisive. Split almost entirely along party lines, the GOP in the Senate killed a bill introduced at the urging of gun violence prevention groups. In the past, this might have been enough to knock the wind out of the sails of gun law reformers. But the new movement had some key differences in that it had many more members with a newly found determination, more money, and more influential leaders, as well as a simple, coherent message and mission that they shared—the enactment of “common sense gun legislation,” such as universal background checks without loopholes, and increased gun safety measures, such as keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them–convicted felons, mentally ill, domestic abusers, and terrorists.
The battle went well beyond Congress, and included boycotts of businesses that allowed guns on their property, etc. as well as fighting for stronger gun laws at the state level. Hollywood actors and actresses, and other entertainers, weighed in as well in favor of improved gun laws.
Where the NRA had previously had free rein in these areas, now there was finally an organized lobby to fight for the opposite position. Recently, President Obama made progress on these issues, by using his power of executive order to put as many measures in place as possible to combat gun violence in this country. Congress continues to, in this area as in so many others, fail to act, despite polls showing that 92% of Americans, and 86% of gun owners, are in favor of common sense gun law reforms, like universal background checks. Nonetheless, gun violence prevention groups have begun forming at the state level to push for the best possible laws to protect citizens against gun violence and strides continue to be made, particularly in states with Democratic-led governments.
Now that you have the history of the gun violence prevention movement, you may be asking, how does gun violence and the movement specifically impact women, and your daughters and sons, and also what can be done to help?
Domestic Violence: Although the NRA likes to insist that guns keep women safe, the truth is that a gun is far more likely to be used against its woman owner by a domestic abuser than as a means of self-defense. In fact, women are less safe living in a house with a gun, period, according to the research.
Negligence/Accidental Shootings: An appalling number of children die every year because a parent has failed to lock up a gun. The child—often a very young child—accesses the gun, which is loaded and somehow discharges. In some jurisdictions, this is considered to be an accidental shooting, but really it is negligence or even recklessness on the part of the parent. Any parent knows that just because you explain dangers to your toddler or young child, doesn’t mean he or she will listen to you and avoid the dangers 100% of the time. It only takes that one time for a child either to injure or kill himself, a playmate, a sibling, or any member of the family. The child is a victim either way, having to live her life knowing that she killed a friend or loved one.
Teen Suicide: Suicide is on the rise and is the third leading cause of teen and young adult death in this country. Lacking impulse control, and if severely depressed, a teen who can easily gain access a gun is a recipe for disaster. While a person can attempt to kill themselves in a variety of ways, one who has easy access to a gun is much more likely to succeed before getting treatment for the underlying mental disorder.
School Shootings: Since Sandy Hook, there have been an unacceptable 186 shootings in schools and universities. That breaks down to be about a shooting per week. Even when a school has a concern about a possible threat, it often will go into “lockdown” mode, thus terrifying our kids, who wonder if their lives are in danger.
There are so many things that you can do as a woman and mom to help reduce gun violence in this country—both on the micro and macro level. Here are some of the most important:
- Join your local chapter of Moms Demand Action (http://momsdemandaction.org ) and respond to their calls to action. This grassroots group, formed in the wake of Sandy Hook, continues to exert influence through simple yet effective means of advocacy and lobbying. Moms are encouraged to bring their children to events so you don’t even have to get a babysitter. In fact, I recall meeting with a Senator, and another mom brought her toddler into the conference room. No one batted an eye.
- Write and call your members of Congress. For a list of your senators and representatives, as well as contact information, go to this website: http://www.contactingthecongress.org. Tell them you’re a constituent and a voter who is concerned about gun violence in this country and ask them to take measures such as voting for common sense gun law reforms, holding gun manufacturers accountable. If your members of Congress are already on board, thank them for their leadership and implore them to continue to make gun violence prevention a legislative priority.
- Vote for candidates at the state and federal level who are in favor of enacting common sense gun laws and who have a history to back it up. This includes voting for Hillary Clinton for President. Clinton has been endorsed by all major gun violence prevention groups in this country, because she has made gun violence prevention a major part of her platform, the first presidential candidate ever to do so. The NRA has endorsed Donald Trump, who believes that the Second Amendment takes priority over public health and safety, and who wants to eliminate gun-free zones. Clinton has also expressed a disdain for the Heller decision, which adopted a nearly unfettered constitutional right for individual gun ownership, including domestic abusers, terrorists, felons, and the mentally ill. If elected, it stands to reason that she would want to appoint to the Supreme Court a judge who interprets the Second Amendment more consistent with her views than Justice Scalia’s.
- If you are a gun owner, lock up your guns and do not risk that your child will be able to access a gun. Take responsibility for your guns. Even if it is legal to open or conceal carry a gun in public, seriously consider leaving yours at home. Too many guns have fired “accidentally” in public places, such as public bathrooms, Wal-Mart, restaurants, and hotel lobbies.
- Before your child goes to a playdate or to a friend’s house, ask the parent if there are guns in the household. Consider restricting visits to that home (especially if the parents do not keep their guns locked up at all times) and plan more playdates in your home, which is hopefully a gun-free zone. If not, and you must have a gun for self-defense, consider buying a smart gun that can only fire if the owner is holding it.
- Still skeptical about the role that our lax gun laws play in mass shootings, such as the Orlando nightclub massacre? Read the “Definitive Guide to the Gun Safety Debate.”
With Love & Kindness,