Three years after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut where a lone 20-year-old gunman wielding an assault weapon snuffed out 26 child and teacher lives, our nation has done shamefully little to protect children instead of guns. This week more than ten thousand people attended over 100 Orange Walks in 43 states to stand up and deliver a rallying cry that we must and can end gun violence in America, according to Moms Demand Action – a cry that must continue and get louder and louder until our tone deaf political leaders hear or are retired from office.
New data this month from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show 2,525 children and teens died by gunfire in our nation in 2014; one child or teen death every 3 hours and 28 minutes, nearly 7 a day, 48 a week. What is this moral perversity in our midst that values guns more than children and human life?
In the three years since Sandy Hook’s nightmare we have not passed even one common sense federal gun law to reduce gun violence and deaths and protect children from our out-of- control scourge of violence. Universal background checks work. The evidence is clear. The overwhelming majority of gun owners and non-gun owners support stricter background checks, yet the Congress has done nothing. How do we change this?
Seventy-eight children under 5 died by guns last year – 30 more than the 48 law enforcement officers killed by guns in the line of duty. Is there no shame in the shooters or in the lawmakers who protect the shooters or in the industry who makes profits off the blood of children? Shouldn’t Republicans, Democrats, and Independents of every race, income, color and faith be able to agree that child gun deaths are a moral blight on our nation which we have the means but not the will to prevent and change course?
Last month our hearts at the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) were broken by the death of our extraordinarily generous, creative, and decades-long partner and board member Pat Fallon, cofounder of the award-winning Fallon Worldwide advertising agency. Some of his agency’s most searing images depicted the relentless carnage of gun violence that kills and maims thousands of children year after year. CDF began our antiviolence campaign in 1994 after Peter Hart Research Associates conducted intergenerational focus groups of Black youths and adults. We were shocked to learn their number one concern was gun violence: Black male youths didn’t believe they’d live to adulthood and Black parents saw gun violence as the number one threat to their children.
Then came Columbine with two White teen boys wearing trench coats who shot and killed 13 people and injured 21 others in a rampage at their school that shocked the nation. Shouldn’t it be illegal to sell and buy these weapons of war in America that turn our streets, schools, and workplaces into killing fields? Surely we are better than this. How can we let our lawmakers stand by and do nothing to stop the slaughter of innocents? Since 1963, over three times more children and teens have died from guns in America than U.S. soldiers killed in action in wars abroad.
Pat Fallon and his creative colleagues did everything in their power to help bring us to our senses over the years to staunch the tide of gun violence with these and other powerful violence prevention campaigns urging us to value our children more than our guns. Why is a child’s right to live less important than a gunman’s right to kill and the gun manufacturers’ profits?
Children are certainly not the only ones in danger in our gun-saturated nation which accounts for less than 5 percent of the global population but owns between 35 to 50 percent of all civilian-owned guns in the world. Recent estimates of U.S. civilian gun ownership are as high as 310 million — about one gun for each person. U.S. military and law enforcement agencies possess approximately 4 million guns. Isn’t there something horribly wrong with this picture? A gun in the home makes the likelihood of homicide three times higher, suicide three to five times higher, and accidental death four times higher. For each time a gun in the home injures or kills in self-defense, there are 11 completed and attempted gun suicides, seven gun criminal assaults and homicides, and four unintentional shooting deaths or injuries. Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native children and teens are disproportionately likely to die from a gun.
These horrendous facts are not acts of God. They are our indefensible choices as Americans. We must urgently push policymakers to confront and end our national gun violence epidemic as the huge public health crisis it is and there are some steps we can all take now:
- End the federal ban on gun research and fund research on effective gun violence prevention strategies. Why is the National Rifle Association (NRA) so afraid of the truth and why do our lawmakers and voters capitulate to NRA bullying? Almost 20 years ago Congress blocked the CDC’s gun research funding by 95 percent. The agency’s budget that year was cut by the exact amount provided the previous year to study prevention of gun injuries and fatalities. Similar restrictions were put on research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2011. Public health professionals continue to believe studying our epidemic gun violence crisis will lead to new understandings of its root causes and possible breakthroughs in new approaches to reduce the daily death toll caused by guns. This is the same process that occurred after focused research on automobile deaths in the 20th century. In 2013, President Obama signed an executive order clarifying that the CDC and NIH are not prohibited from studying gun violence and included $10 million in funding to study prevention of gun injuries and fatalities. That funding was never approved by Congress. Over the years, some academic institutions and organizations have stepped in to fund some excellent research but a much more coordinated and concentrated research effort is crucial to make gun violence reduction one of the first major public health goals of the 21st century. It is time to fire the NRA as our head of national security and of our national public health research agenda. Even former Representative Jay Dickey (R-AR), author of the current language banning gun violence research recently noted that “doing nothing is no longer an acceptable solution.”
- Continue to broaden the range of supporters for effective gun prevention action at the federal, state, and local levels. Transforming change is slow and very very hard. It requires dogged, sustained effort from a critical mass of determined citizens. We cannot stay numb, cowed or intimidated by bullies who value profits over human life. Do not let your passion for stopping relentless gun violence wane however long it takes. Insist political leaders support common sense universal background checks including checks on private and internet sales. Restore the assault weapon ban and limit the size of ammunition clips. Require that gun owners carry liability insurance. Promote the development of smart guns; and require guns be stored unloaded and locked in the home. And we must stop guns being the only unregulated consumer product in our nation while killing tens of thousands of children and adults every year.
- Pledge to ASK about guns in the home where your children visit. Make clear that you will not let your child play in a house with unlocked guns just as you would not let your child ride in a car without a seatbelt. One in three homes with children in the United States has a gun. If you don’t own a gun, one of your child’s friends’ families likely does. It may be awkward to ask about guns in the home but it may help save a child’s life. More than 19 million parents and grandparents have taken the Asking Saves Kids (ASK) pledge promoted by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the American Academy of Pediatrics to ask about guns in the homes where their children play. Join them today and promote this important message in your community and on social media.
- Divest in gun companies. Don’t invest in violence and death. Are you one of the many Americans whose retirement plans include gun manufacturers’ stock? There are tens of millions of Americans with 401Ks. Let’s ask and check now to see whether our 401K retirement funds are invested in gun and ammunition companies and make a change if they are. Let’s ask if our religious, philanthropic, nonprofit organizations and universities with endowments are supporting gun violence through investments.
In this season when Christians profess to believe God entered history as a poor child seeking peace in our world, let us protect children, not guns. As tireless fighter Pat Fallon reminded us—we can and must do better.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.