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Valerie Young's picture

Mothers are driven to protect their children. It’s innate. When the very laws we live by allow our children to die, with bullets buried in the bodies we birthed and love, our  hearts explode in rage and pain that transforms us and makes of us something distinctly other than that which we were before. This is a story of the parents of the children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary and how it propelled them into the world of gun control legislation  and political action. It could be the story of anyone who tries to make sense of a child’s death by publicly advocating for changes to the legal culture in which  gun violence occurred. It is becoming the story of Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin.

The story is told by Matt Bennett in The Promise: The Families of Sandy Hook and the Long Road to Gun Safety.  He is a gun policy expert and Washington DC-based advisor to Sandy Hook Promise (SHP), a group of victims’ family members, friends and neighbors. Advocating for common sense gun laws, and aiming to improve the intersection of school safety, mental health and gun control, SHP quickly succeeded in Connecticut’s state legislature, getting a solid bill through less than three months from the murders. Their experience in the U.S. Capitol was completely different – in spite of the great moral authority of their position as parents of murdered children, the road was strewn with barriers and obstacles. Even with intense public attention and repeated attempts to  pass the least restrictive gun safety legislation, no bill survived the machinations in Congress.

Mr. Bennett describes the SHP’s immersion into the history of gun regulation and how influence is exerted in the making of federal law. “As I discovered, it is an awesome and terrible thing to look into the eyes of the mother of a recently murdered six-year-old who believes, perhaps correctly, that her child would be alive today if our laws had been sensible enough to have limited the number of rounds in a magazine. And it is almost as tough to have to tell such parents that Congress wasn’t about to take that step, even now. But after I did so, to their great credit, they summoned the courage to ask what kind of gun legislation would be possible and what role they could play to help get it passed.”

The enormity of the challenge they have undertaken is shattering. “The total number of gun deaths per year is about 31,000. This includes roughly 11,400 murders, 19,000 suicides and 600 accidental shootings — more than 10 firearms deaths per 100,000 people every year. In addition to deaths, the U.S. has about 80,000 firearms-related injuries annually and 500,000 crimes involving a firearm every year — about one per minute.”

It is painfully obvious that these statistics are the direct consequence of societal choices we have made, the laws we have passed, organizations we support, how we choose to conduct business and whom we’ve elected to public office. People in other countries have made different choices.  ”Japan, which has strict gun control laws, has 0.07 per 100,000, and Switzerland, where most citizens have guns in the home, has 3.84.”  That’s compared to our national figure of 10 per 100,000.

Amazingly, SHP members are able to channel the loss of their children into organized pressure for change, but even so their efforts are not welcomed by everyone.  Millions are made by the sale and manufacture of guns, and millions more by the deal-making over gun control legislation. There’s much at stake for those people, as well as for those committed to a view of gun-owning freedom.  “Indeed, a full-fledged conspiracy theory was hatched in the fevered fantasies of some Second Amendment absolutists. They accused the families of creating a “hoax,” of faking the deaths of their children and adult loved ones. Facebook pages and YouTube channels were launched to “prove” this proposition. And some of the families received calls, emails and letters insisting that they were actors and liars, playing their part in an Obama-led scheme to abrogate gun rights.”

Nonetheless, the parents press on, in spite of the failure of their efforts to pass stronger gun control laws.  Buffeted by the headwinds of a gun-loving culture and against the deep pockets of the NRA and similar interest groups, they vow to persevere. “It’s often the case that some of the most effective advocates in American politics are people who have a personal stake in an issue. Those seeking funding for serious diseases, including nearly every variety of cancer, have perfected the art of cause-based lobbying. They bring people who are suffering from the illness, photos of family members lost to it, testimonials to the pain and misery endured by their loved ones, and PowerPoints replete with statistics and data. They are routinely granted audiences with congressional staff members to make their case.”

We can but hope and pray that the mothers and fathers of the murdered children succeed. I find some comfort in the Sandy Hook Promise motto:  “Our hearts are broken; Our spirit is not.”

Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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