Over my children’s spring break this year, I took them to the zoo. I bought tickets in advance because the zoo is limiting the number of folks allowed in order to best comply with social distancing mandates. I made sure they wore their masks over their noses, even though my son thinks it’s “the most uncomfortable thing in the world.” I ensured that we sanitized and washed our hands before and after we arrived. I did everything I could to keep them safe from the pandemic raging outside.
While watching the lions lounge, my phone vibrated with a news alert—another shooting. Another shooting of innocent people going about their lives in another city. Instinct made me look up and around. To keep my kids safe. Because despite all the safety measures I’d taken, my kids still weren’t safe. Because alongside the pandemic that we’re all trying to protect our kids from, there’s a national gun violence epidemic that no amount of masking or hand washing will protect them from. The horrible truth is that, in America, kids strolling through a zoo might not be safe. Because if it could happen there—in a grocery store, in a nightclub—it could happen here. In a zoo.
It seems we’ve barely gotten out our “thoughts and prayers” for one shooting when another happens. Most recently in the late-night hours of April 15th, a gunman opened fire in an Indianapolis FedEx facility, killing eight people and injuring at least seven more. This attack comes on the heels of other mass shootings within the past month, including the Atlanta massage parlors which left eight dead, the Colorado grocery store shooting claiming the lives of ten, and the southern California real estate office where four people were killed – including a nine-year-old boy.
The widespread gun violence problem is what brought together former U.S. congresswoman Gabby Giffords, executive director of Giffords, an organization on a mission to save lives from gun violence, Peter Ambler, executive director and co-founder of the Giffords Organization, and former South Carolina state senator Greg Gregory to sit down with the Washington Post to discuss what’s being done to protect children physically and emotionally from the epidemic of gun violence in the United States.
Gun Violence Is Prevalent
The numbers are stunning. Between 2015 and 2018, 35,000 children were shot before they turned eighteen. Guns are the “third leading cause of death for young people” in the United States, according to Ambler.
Since Columbine, 150,000 children have been exposed to gun violence in schools, says Ambler. But the shootings are not just in schools. Kids in America are faced with armed domestic violence at home, community violence, a greater risk of unintentional shoots and firearm suicide.
In short, they are exposed to guns in too many places in too many situations.
Children Who Are Exposed To Gun Violence Can Develop PTSD
“S]eventeen percent of America’s teens have been exposed to gun violence in some way, shape, or form,” Ambler says and adds that of those, forty percent will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Many times, that PTSD goes unaddressed. “The problem is about more than just shootings. It’s about the anxiety and all of the ripple effects on children,” Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Giffords Law Center, told HuffPost in a 2018 interview about the mental health of gun violence on children.
Universal Background Checks Is Back On The Table
The answer to the gun violence epidemic is not more school shooter drills, not more lock down drills. It’s legislative reform to make firearms harder to access. “With readier access to firearms, you see the proliferation of community violence. You see the proliferation of shootings in schools,” noted Ambler.
Recently, President Biden signed an executive order aimed to begin to chip away at gun violence. Unfortunately, it’s not enough. Real reform will have to come from Congress.
One reform that many point to is universal background checks. “[U]niversal background checks is the…single-biggest thing that we can do to bring down rates of gun violence in this country, address this problem for what it is, which is a public health crisis,” said Ambler. He also pointed out that background checks prevent kids from buying guns and prevent guns from being trafficked from states with weaker guns laws into states with stronger gun laws.
On a state and municipal level, he also championed child access laws, which mandate that gun owners may not allow their children access to their guns.
Voting In The Primaries Is Critical To Gun Reform
In order for true legislative reform, we must have legislators willing to act. Though most Americans do support gun laws, few Republicans are willing to act. There’s a reason for that. Former Senator Gregory believes the problem begins at the primary process. He suggests that those running for office know that “if you’re going to lose your seat in the legislature or Congress, you’re most likely going to lose it in a primary rather than a general election.” As a result, they must appeal to the voters who vote in primaries. Those coming out to vote in Republican primaries are usually hard-right voters, and often make up the small percentage of voters who do not support gun control.
He believes the answer is for “middle, moderates, suburban moms that care about this issue” to get involved and vote in the primaries.
There’s something unbearably sad about the thought of our children growing up knowing that no place is really safe, that gun violence could happen anywhere. There’s something viciously awful about the knowledge that even as we’re crawling toward the light at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic tunnel (hopefully), there’s an underlying, national endemic that’s hurting our children, which remains largely unaddressed. It’s past time to address it.
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