The “gun” talk. It’s something that I had never considered, staring at my hugely round belly or cradling two tiny babies in my arms. Yes, I had wondered how I would talk to them about dating, alcohol, and sex. I had thought about how I would talk about bullying and teasing, and about being the odd kid out.
Despite the fact that I grew up in a relatively rough neighborhood with guns very present- having been robbed at gun point on a date, been present for a drive-by shooting at my jr. high, having seen guns waved on my street by gang-bangers, and having been in an armed bank robbery- all before I had graduated from high school- it still never crossed my mind that I would need to talk to our young daughters about the danger and horror of school shootings.
And yet, this past Friday, we had the unfortunate opportunity to put into practice a conversation plan that we first used when the Sandy Hook school shooting happened. When I got home from work on Friday and met the kids, I told them solemnly that I needed to talk with them about something important. A sad and terrible thing had happened. I said that there had been a shooting at a school in Washington state, not in our district, but close. I said it had been a student, and two people had died and several had been hurt.
The girls reacted differently. Sofia went quiet- instantly turning her head and body away, as if to shield herself from the news. Audrey stared at me with big, serious eyes. I continued by saying that I wanted them to hear it from me, so that they would not be frightened or confused if they heard about it from friends or at school. I said they could ask any questions and I would answer them honestly (this is true- but with some restraint. I’ll explain more in a moment).
Over the course of the next few hours and over the weekend, we had many more short conversations, most initiated by them, but a couple more that Tony and I brought up. They had questions about what had happened. Sofia asked where they were shot. This is when I put a limitation on my forthrightness- I told them I didn’t know. There is being honest and then there is putting the image of a child being shot in the head by another child in your daughter’s mind- I’m just not going there.
Audrey asked why he brought a gun to school if it could hurt his friends? This thoughtful question struck my soul and demonstrated to me what an incredible capacity children have both to ask unvarnished, sophisticated, and yet painfully simple questions. I answered as gently as I could that he did shoot his friends. I explained that children (up through teenagers) should not have guns (unsupervised) because they don’t make good decisions yet. To which Audrey replied, teenagers are the worst [at making decisions]. Yes, I said, they are. I said that the boy was probably a good person who made a horrible, horrible mistake because he had access to a gun. With a different set of circumstances, it would have been an after-school fight, a bloody nose for somebody, and a suspension.
We had a conversation about gun safety. I explained that they could never, ever be around a gun without an adult. If a friend says they have a gun in their house or their backpack or says they want to show it to you- you immediately leave. You tell their parents, you tell me, and you keep telling until an adult listens. I explained that guns are so dangerous because an accident can happen so fast and be so powerful. I said- it’s not like breaking something like a glass bowl or something expensive like a laptop; with a gun, even a tiny mistake can kill you or your friend.
We spent a lot of time talking about their school. I said that the school, from the principal, to the teachers, to office staff- their number one priority, even above learning- is keeping you safe. I said that I felt very confident that their school was safe and they had nothing to worry about. This was the only time when my heart was really in my throat and I felt closest to a lie- not because I don’t believe that the entire staff is wholly focused on safety, but because there is a limit to what they can do. Stopping short of metal detectors, there is room for tragedy to strike. And even then, safety is not guaranteed. And there is not a snowball’s chance in hell that I would ever let them attend a school where the staff was armed. End of discussion.
Each time one of these horrific events occurs, one of the things we all decide to do is take a leap of faith. We have to put our trust in the people around us, the teachers and staff at our children’s schools, our fellow parents, and most important- we have to make a conscious decision that fear will not rule us.
I also believe it’s times like these that we need to take action and make our voices heard. I talked to the girls about voting and about how we have an opportunity to make our community safer by voting yes on Initiative 594, requiring background checks for all gun sales in Washington state. No- it won’t change everything, but it will make a difference. It will send the message, that collectively, as a community- we believe in common sense safety for ourselves and others.
Each night at dinner, we do a “gratitude practice” (thanks to Brene Brown’s wonderful short lecture series, The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting). Our practice is to go around the table and share at least one thing that we are grateful for. Last night, Audrey enthusiastically started off our gratitude practice by saying she was grateful for her school’s Safety Procedure. I could have hugged the entire staff of her school (and honestly, high-fived myself). It felt great to know that over the course of a few days of thinking, talking, and listening at home and at school, she felt a sense of confidence in her school and environment. Her sense of security had been shaken, yes- but we reinforced it successfully.
I am a huge fan of Moms Demand Action for Gun Safety in America and the many other groups that are trying valiantly to bring some reason to what has become an unreasonable and untenable situation. I have written previously about gun safety and what we can do about it. You can read my two previous blogs, My Child’s Next Birthday Party Will Be At a Gun Range (it was not), and Locked and Unloaded: Getting Real About Gun Safety. Each successive shooting does not make me more radical, but it does make me more resolute in my belief that we must stand up for our children and the values we embrace as a country.
I hope that this blog is helpful as you navigate these difficult conversations with your own children. I hope you’ll speak up for the safety of our children. I hope you’ll take a stand for creating a community where we can live, learn, and grow without fear. It takes courage and fortitude but if we come together we can stand up to the senseless, profit-driven men who continue, against reason and evidence to peddle a culture of fear and distrust.
We must not allow progress to be suffocated by fear.
I appreciate you taking the time to read this post. Please comment, share, and participate in this important discussion with your family and community.
I was in my favorite place on earth, Winthrop, WA, a few weeks back to celebrate the 4th of July. Winthrop is charming, rustic, Western-themed town that today continues the tradition of being a hub for ranchers and farmers, and importantly has transitioned into a tourist destination for those seeking active getaways in a beautiful valley. On a busy summer weekend, every car on the street will bristle with all manner of outdoorsy paraphernalia from mountain & road bikes, to kayaks and inner tubes, to camping and hunting gear, bulging from Thule roof racks.
We were enjoying a break from mountain biking ourselves, strolling down the diminutive main drag, ducking in and out of the shops, without a care in the world- when it happened. One moment I was saying something to my 6 1/2 year old daughter, and the next moment I was staring at a gun. Now, it wasn’t pointed at me, but it was about eight inches from my daughters face, so to say my heart skipped a beat is an understatement. It was as out of place as if someone had walked up and slapped me.
The man in front of me was participating in the practice known as open carry. As in, I have a gun stuck in the back of my pants and I want you to know it. The gun was in some kind of fanny-pack (he’d call it a holster) and it was perched there like a flower stuck in a vase- a very deadly flower. My initial reaction was shock followed quickly by anger. Then, almost as quickly as he was in front of me, he was gone. He turned into the next shop and we kept moving down the block toward our destination.
However brief that moment was, it was a lightening strike. As bright and harsh as a fiery bolt of electricity, it illuminated in a flash why open carry is so harmful.
Let’s Get One Thing Straight
Let me state emphatically- I am not opposed to gun-ownership and I am a supporter of intelligent gun rights. Please don’t read any secret agenda into that- I truly support the right to bear arms and given the chance, I’ll happily have a dialogue about the parameters that should be implemented to ensure everyone who wishes to, can enjoy and own guns safely. The comparison to car ownership and operation may seem like a cliched argument (and may not be enshrined in the constitution- because let’s be honest, it would be an amendment about horse ownership) but it is incredibly relevant and apt. I’ll come back to that in a little bit. In fact, NYT Opinion Columnist, Nicholas Kristof, just had some great thoughts about this idea.
Like most Americans, I have many friends who are hunters and frankly, if you are a meat eater, you are a bit of a hypocrite if you don’t support hunters. I admire the ability to dress a kill and have enjoyed the fruits of these endeavors (whether as jerky or steaks). When the zombie apocalypse happens, I’ll be glad to count these folks as friends. Further, I have many friends who enjoy owning a handgun and although we may argue about whether or not possessing a gun actually makes them safer- in many ways that’s beside the point, they have the right to own a firearm.
Not to mention, the United States has the highest rate of firearm ownership in the world, 97 guns for every 100 people; 50% more than the next two closest countries (those paragons of civil society, Serbia & Yemen)- so to a very real degree, regardless of your feelings on the subject- guns are here to stay. No one (at least not me) is arguing that fact.
What I do want to address is the impact of reducing the complex issue of gun regulation to a one-dimensional “all or nothing” argument. It’s ridiculous. We should feel embarrassed as a nation to allow that kind of shallow invocation to distract us from the real opportunity and need in front of us. We must find a way, both in terms of our laws and more importantly, in our attitudes and social mores, to ensure public safety and security. To do nothing is selfish, arrogant, and short-sighted. One place to begin is with a careful look at the impact of open carry on social dynamics, freedom of speech, and safety.
The Reality of Open Carry
Back to that moment in the sun in Winthrop. Recall, the open carry individual and I didn’t even make eye contact, though my first impulse was to reach out and tap him on the shoulder. I wanted to ask him, “What the HELL are you thinking?” How dare you introduce that kind of threat into our peaceful afternoon? What if my daughter had tripped and instinctively reached in front of her to catch herself? What if I had tripped (a pretty common occurrence) and stumbled into him? What if he thought I was a threat? An unarmed person, even one spoiling for a fight, would do no more than push me, but this guy- who’s arrogance and slavish devotion to belief puts every member of the community at a very real physical disadvantage. He could shoot me. He could KILL me. In front of my daughter. And he might even successfully claim it was self-defense. That’s the reality we invite when we tolerate open-carry in the public sphere.
It’s important to note that in Washington State, open carry is legal (even without a permit), so this man wasn’t legally doing anything wrong, but he was in a very tangible way, impacting every person around him, by destabilizing the dynamics of power, community, and freedom from fear that our society relies upon to function.
Critics may move to dismiss my assertion as hysterical or naive, but that’s the lazy voice of misdirection. The crux of the issue is this: when one person has a gun and another doesn’t, the person without a gun has less power, less voice, and in point of fact, can be under threat of death in an instant. Standing eight inches behind that open carry person as a pedestrian, I was “safe”. However, I have no doubt that I could have provoked the guy into shooting me (perhaps with words alone) and that is not okay. It is not okay that my ability to speak and move about on a public street was limited because one guy had a pointless point to make. The other lazy answer to this is to arm *both* people. But we know that’s a violence multiplier, not a violence reducer. It’s bananas to think that any rational person would want to live in a society where we all walk around armed.
Cars vs. Guns
Back to the cars vs. guns analogy. Although the right to own a car is not in the Constitution (again, it would be a horse amendment), US car ownership is on par with gun ownership; particularly with respect to other nations. We have the highest level of car ownership in the world. Car ownership and what it represents in real terms and psychologically, is vitally important to America and yet, we have a whole body of comprehensive laws that folks are more or less happy with and abide by. It is not only against the law to drive on the sidewalk in the US, but it’s also socially unacceptable. You may laugh, but that’s NOT true in all other countries. Social norms in Kenya (where I lived as a Peace Corps volunteer), dictate that cars can drive wherever they can fit- sidewalks, center dividers, into on-coming traffic- whatever they can get away with. Through enforcement of our laws and our social norms, we have made car ownership a reasonably safe and regulated prospect. Insurance, training, safety features, consumer protections. Remember when seat belts weren’t mandatory in cars? Okay, me neither- the law was changed in 1968, but I DO remember when it became the law to *wear* a seat belt in California in the mid ’80’s.
Only someone grossly out of touch with reality would *ever* suggest we abolish cars in the United States. It’s not even a serious conversation, BUT it is a good discussion to talk about ways to continue to improve safety, efficiency, affordability, and alternate methods of transportation. The same holds true for gun legislation. Criminal background checks for gun buyers has overwhelming popular support among Republicans and Democrats and yet it becomes Kryptonite the minute Capitol Hill goes near it. And it’s true- no one piece of legislation will be a silver bullet (see what I did there?), but again, that’s beside the point. That’s like saying that seat belts don’t save ALL the lives, so let’s just forget them. We must take some moderate, common sense steps toward improving the safety and security of guns for the benefit all Americans.
Our Collective Responsibility
Changing our attitudes and laws takes courage and it will, ultimately take trust. So I am taking a first step, gathering my courage and showing trust. It was difficult for me to write this post. I had to consider whether someone might decide that my voice, my words, would be considered a threat to their “security” or “freedom”. In writing this, do I put my family at risk? As a parent, this is a sickening question to ponder. But the answer is- if I don’t speak up, if I don’t advocate for common sense, if I don’t call for the nation to join together in support of safety for all, in conjunction with (not at the expense of) the rights of the individual, who will? There are many individuals and organizations doing this, but we haven’t seen the groundswell of moral conviction and support that must be present to change, not just the laws, but our society itself. Again- it’s crucial to reject the urge to marginalize or derail progress by sounding the “slippery slope” alarm. It’s a specious cry and one that Americans must step up and prove that we are smarter than.
So, my call to action? Share this post, comment on this post, write your own post. Get involved. Add your voice. Conventional wisdom would say call your senator or representative, but maybe it’s time to expand our approach. Contact your local gun store, contact your local NRA chapter, your hunting club, your shooting range. Contact the gun manufacturers- tell them you will support the makers and sellers who are committed to responsible gun ownership.
As for my encounter in Winthrop? It was a grim reminder of what we are allowing to become “the norm” in the public sphere.