The Power Of The Personal Narrative In The Gun Safety Debate
We are now seeing how the powerful personal stories of those who have been impacted by gun violence are being used to argue for saner and safer gun laws. Gabrielle Giffords, Roxanna Green and others are following in the footsteps of Jim and Sarah Brady in using their individual tragedies for the public good.
In this nation’s public discourse regarding gun safety, we have not accessed the personal narratives of gun violence victims and their families nearly enough, and by doing so we deprive ourselves of a potent tool in combating the forces of the intransigent gun lobby. So here’s this writer’s contribution to this burgeoning thrust of making the personal connection to public policy in regard to gun safety.
The decade of greed: The ‘80s
In the 1980s there was a young man who in lived in an inner-city in the United States. He’s grown up with the constant sounds of gunshots and the understanding of not sitting with his back to the window at night. On a spring day that began like many other spring days, he discovers through his high school’s grapevine, that two fellow students (siblings) were shot and killed, along with several others, by their father before he was killed by police himself.
In the early ‘80s there were no grief counselors dispatched to talk with students about the impact this had on them. There were no grand words of consolation spoken to the closest friends, and this young man was a friend to the brother and a classmate of the sister; no comforting assurances given to their grieving hearts.
The incident made the local news reports, but there were no rallies or visits by local dignitaries. Around this time, in 1981, Jim Brady, press secretary to President Ronald Reagan, is shot and seriously wounded during an assassination attempt on the president. About six months earlier, Mark David Chapman fatally shot music legend John Lennon in the back four times at the entrance to his apartment building. Then the outcry about gun violence was voiced; then the senselessness and carnage of firearm aggression was verbalized.
The gun safety sentiment becomes so strong that by the mid-to-late ‘80s, several landmark laws and policies are forwarded:
· In 1986, Handgun Control Inc. (HCI) successfully lobbies Congress to ban armor-piercing, “cop-killer” bullets that can puncture bullet-proof vests worn by police officers.
· In 1989, after a schoolyard massacre in Stockton, Calif. the first assault weapons ban in the nation passes, the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapon Act.
· Also in 1989, Florida adopts the nation’s first “Child Access Prevention” law, which requires adults to store guns so that they are inaccessible to children or use a device to lock the gun.
Guns were responsible for 327,173 deaths in America during the decade of the ‘80s.
Gun violence and Generation X: The ‘90s
It’s the early-90s and this young man is now a youth program specialist at an urban community center. He works with gang members and at-risk youth whose lives, just as his, have been touched by gun violence. There are times when he stands in front of young men with weapons to prevent them from going down that road of devastation and self-destruction; he regularly walks through the neighborhood housing project to make sure his young charges weren’t in harm’s way.
Some of those young people made it and others did not. Some of those who didn’t make it were, tragically, killed by guns. There were anti-gun violence initiatives that began during that time, but without the support of the vast majority of decision-makers (those who create policy) those initiatives didn’t get very far. It seems that when those with black and brown faces and when those with Hispanic, Southeast Asian and African-American names die as a result of firearms, it’s not top priority.
Although this wasn’t an incident that is tied directly to gun violence, the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995 did have an impact on Americans’ views of the NRA. The National Rifle Association (NRA) faces intense public scrutiny and widespread criticism for its extremist views against law enforcement.
NRA membership dropped and President H.W. Bush resigned his life membership after it is revealed that the NRA called Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agents “jack-booted thugs” in a fundraising letter.
And we all know that at the end of the decade, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered a total of 12 students and one teacher and injured 21 additional students at Columbine High School. This bloodshed shocked the nation at large and reignited the gun laws debate.
There were many laws before and after the Columbine massacre that highlighted our gun safety discourse:
· In 1993 Virginia passes legislation limiting purchases of guns to “one per person per month,” in response to increasing evidence that Virginia is a source state of crime guns trafficked up and down the East Coast.
· President Clinton, in 1994, signs into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which includes the first-ever federal Assault Weapons Ban, banning the future manufacture and importation of military-style assault weapons.
· In 1999 the wake of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, the U.S. Senate passes legislation to close the gun show loophole. Unfortunately, similar legislation in the House is defeated and the Senate bill stalls in conference committee.
Guns were responsible for 353,363 deaths in America during the decade of the ‘90s.
New millennium, same story: The 2000s
The early 2000s moves this young man to Northeastern America where he is a high school teacher and subsequently becomes a university professor and administrator. In the early part of the decade, the town that he and his family settle into becomes, per capita, the murder capital of the U.S. due in large part to gun violence. The high school where he teaches has a long list of casualties and the 3,500-plus student population shows the effects of this. The pain of the deaths and the fear of being the next victim are palpable.
The university and high school were less than 10 minutes from one another so the young man was able to follow many of the students from the high school where he formerly taught. Some of those students would later become fatalities of guns.
In the mid-2000s the not-as-young man and his family move to the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S., where he works as a director in a prominent and well-established non-profit organization. This position brings him into contact and collaboration with many metropolitan organizations and institutions. The killing of men, women and children by firearms is a feature in this new town as well.
Although gun deaths for the decade dropped by approximately 50,000 from the previous one, the 2000s were marked by several tragic events:
· In 2007, Gunman Seung-Hui Cho, killed 32 people and wounded many others at Virginia Tech University before committing suicide. The massacre is the deadliest peacetime shooting incident by a single gunman in United States history, on or off a school campus.
· In 2009 22-year-old Richard Poplawski, shot and killed 3 Pittsburgh police officers and injured two others. Poplawski was armed with a semi-automatic AK-47-style rifle, a shotgun and three handguns (a .357 Magnum revolver, a .380-caliber handgun and a .45-caliber handgun) and protected by a bulletproof vest as he laid in wait for the officers.
· Also in 2009, Malik Nadal Hasan, a major in the U.S. Army, killed 12 soldiers and one civilian and wounded at least 30 on the base at Ft. Hood, Texas.
We also witness in 2004 President Bush and Congress allowing the federal assault weapons ban to expire on Sept. 13, despite a majority of Americans’ support for the ban.
Guns were responsible for 303,937 deaths in America during the decade of the 2000s.
Current events and recent history: The 2010s
In the 2010s the man is grayer and three of his four children are now adults. He has seen more death than he would care to remember. Funeral programs and cemeteries are indicators across his life’s timeline. Life would have another landmark to add to his landscape, however.
In 2011, with a weapon that Gen. McChrystal said he didn’t think there was “any need for on the streets,” this man’s brother was killed on a dirty street in one of America’s largest cities in a hail of gunfire. Depending on the account, he was shot 18 to 21 times. A law enforcement officer at the scene said they had never seen that many bullets in a human body or as much smoke coming from it.
The man who had changed his diapers; who had rocked him to sleep and had seen his first steps now had to say goodbye to his little brother at 32 years of age. His pain, regretfully, is not isolated in the 2010s:
· In Tucson, Ariz., in 2011, Jared Lee Loughner attacked a group of people outside a supermarket. His intent was to kill U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords only, but he ended up killing six and wounding 19. Although Rep. Giffords was shot in the head, she survived.
· In 2012, 12 people were killed and 58 others were injured when a gunman opened fire in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colo., during the midnight premier of “The Dark Knight Rises” film. A 24-year-old male, James Holmes, was arrested and charged with the killings.
· In December of 2012, 20 children and six adults were killed in a shooting attack by gunman Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The assailant killed his mother Nancy Lanza leading up to the massacre at the primary school. He killed himself before the police had arrived.
Gun are responsible (2012 figures haven’t been tallied as of yet) for 63,632 deaths in 2010s thus far.
If you haven’t discovered by now, the man in this account is me. This is my contribution to this current debate about guns and gun safety. This story, sadly, isn’t unique enough. The most effective counter to the gun lobby’s insanity is connecting the personal pain and the societal consequences to what public policy should be.
Here is a profound and glaring hypocrisy in our failure to craft gun laws that work: GOP legislatures across the country passed law after law to combat the imaginary problem of in-person voter fraud. Since the year 2000, the likelihood of this occurrence is 1 in 15 million. Conversely, during that time, almost 400,000 people in America have been killed by guns.
Yet, that statistical reality leaves those who worship guns unfazed. They are untouched by the fact that since 1979 America has lost nearly three times as many children and teens to gunfire as the number of U.S. military deaths during the Vietnam War and over 23 times the number of U.S. military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The tiny coffins of Tucson, Aurora and Newtown — the much-too-small caskets of young ones of every shade and hue in rural and urban America — appear to have no effect on the stubborn hearts and minds of those who have a slavish and flawed understanding of the Second Amendment.
Although this piece primarily addresses those who died as a result of guns, from 2001-2011 755,959 individuals in the U.S. suffered non-fatal injuries due to firearms. And yet this truth fails to register on the gun safety legislation radar.
Today there are scores of people across this nation exhibiting the effects of wartime PTSD as a result of gun violence. Tonight, somewhere in America — in too many places in America — a child will be rocked to sleep to the lullaby of gunfire. To those who are impervious to their pain and their plight: Will this have to be your personal story before you begin to take gun safety seriously?
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