The recent mass shootings at public schools have, once again, brought national attention to the gun violence problem in America. The 10 deaths at Santa Fe High School in Texas this month and the 17 killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February have re-ignited the gun control debate. Sadly, the divide between politicians talking a good game and actually enacting meaningful legislation to protect us from gun-related violence is as wide now as it has ever been.
It’s a shame, though, that it takes a massacre at a school or a church or a nightclub or a place of employment to focus our collective psyche on gun violence. One might think that the 30,000 deaths (homicides, suicides, law enforcement-related, and accidental) and the 70,000 injuries a year by guns, would be more than enough reason to keep gun-related violence on the top of everyone’s list of issues that must be addressed immediately. But, alas, that is not the case. In the past few years, local shootings barely get a mention in the media. Many times, even a shooting death is no longer front page news, or even headline news in the local section. It’s as if we have hardened ourselves to the fact that gun violence in America is the norm, rather than the exception. So much so, that we have to have legislative action to designate a month, June, as “Gun Violence Awareness Month” and a day (June 2) as “Gun Violence Awareness Day.”
Hadiya Pendleton. Remember her? She was the 15-year-old girl who was shot to death just days after performing at President Obama’s second inauguration. Hadiya was Chicago’s 42nd gun death victim in 2013. Yes, the 42nd victim before the first month of the year of 2013 came to a close, in just one city in the USA. To honor Hadiya – and the 93 Americans who lose their lives to gun violence every day in America – a national coalition of organizations has designated June 2, 2018 as the Fourth Annual National Gun Violence Awareness Day. June 2, 2018 would also have been Hadiya’s 21st birthday. We are asked to wear orange on June 2, to commemorate the lives lost. The idea originated from a group of Hadiya’s friends who asked their classmates to wear orange in Hadiya’s honor, for orange is a color that symbolizes the value of human life.
However, declaring one day as awareness day is not enough, so the whole month of June is proclaimed “Gun Violence Awareness Month.” The choosing of June for this designation struck me as interesting, seeing as how, since 1949, May has been declared “Mental Health Awareness Month.” And, given that so many politicians, fearful of upsetting the National Rifle Association (NRA), continue to lay the blame for our country’s disgraceful mass shooting death numbers on the perpetrator’s mental health, it seems only appropriate that “Mental Health Awareness Month” is followed by “Gun Violence Awareness Month.”
The spineless NRA-fearful and NRA-funded elected officials, who hide behind the curtain of mental health as the cause of mass shootings, totally ignore the reality that deaths from mass shooting incidents are a very small percentage of the overall gun-related deaths in America. As reported in the recently released Rockefeller Institute of Government’s policy brief “Can Mass Shootings be Stopped,” over the 50-year period between 1966 and 2016, 1,141 people were killed in mass shooting events. This equates to less than 23 deaths a year. Compare that to the overall total of 13,000 gun homicides a year in America. Mass shooting deaths account for just 0.0017 percent of the yearly homicides by firearms. So, to evade the true problem of gun violence in America–that firearms are used to kill almost 100 Americans a day, 365 days a year–the decision makers have framed their inaction on sensible gun safety laws as a mental health issue. I believe that by spouting over and over again, the mantra that mental illness is the problem, our political leaders are trying more to convince themselves, than to convince us, that guns aren’t the problem.
Following the Parkland shooting, states around the country started passing “red flag” laws. Both Republican-controlled and Democratic-controlled legislatures and statehouses are starting to adopt laws that would allow a family member, police official, romantic partner, etc. to petition the courts to temporarily remove a person’s firearms if that person is considered a threat to themselves or others. Even the NRA has come out publicly in support of certain “red flag” laws. However, the Massachusetts proposal has drawn the ire of the NRA because it includes stun guns. While “red flag” laws have broken the stalemate between gun rights advocates and gun safety proponents, I’m fearful that these laws will be used by pols as a shield to protect themselves from criticism for not taking action to stem the tide of gun violence in our communities. Actions on proposals to require universal background checks, raising the age for legal gun ownership, imposing an assault weapons ban, and ending the sale of semi-automatic military-style firearms such as the AR-15. The AR-15, which was included on the list of banned guns under the now-elapsed assault weapons ban, was used in both the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
As we enter the month of June and recall the life of Hadiya Pendleton and other victims of gun violence on June 2, reminding ourselves of the toll gun violence takes in America, let’s stop allowing our elected officials to hide behind the low-hanging fruit of “red flag” laws so as to perpetuate the myth that mental illness is the sole cause of our gun-related violence. It’s time we held our representatives accountable for their do-nothing attitude that has made America the gun death capital of the world, with 57 times as many school shootings as the other major industrialized nations combined.
In a recent survey of urban school students, more than 70 percent said they knew someone who was shot or did the shooting. This is a sad commentary on America’s gun violence culture. Too many of us have suffered from the effects of gun violence. During Gun Violence Awareness Month, I will be wearing my orange “Survivor” button to honor the memory of my niece Sara, who was shot to death on February 1, 2015.