Wednesday, April 17, 2013

'Raindrops and Background Noise'

As the United States Senate prepares to vote on amendments to the Manchin-Toomey background check bill today, I would like to talk about access to guns. I am not going to talk about access in our big cities, cities like New York City and Chicago that are constantly dealing with an influx of guns that inevitably end up killing people, but I do want to talk about access to guns in my home state of Idaho.

Both of Idaho's senators voted against cloture and therefore debate on the gun legislation moving forward in the United States Senate. This despite the fact that at least fifteen people have been killed by a gun in Idaho since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut that served as a catalyst for the recent push to address gun safety in America. In fact, Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho) took the lead as spokesman for the group of senators opposed to ending the filibuster prior to that effort failing.

Here is what Senator Risch had to say about expanding the background check system in this country:
“One of the problems we have here is this debate here now is focusing on expanding a background check system that simply does not work and casts a burden on people that are exercising a Constitutional right. And I think everybody has to accept that this is a Constitutional right, the right to keep and bear arms. Having said that, we should start the debate beginning at what we all believe – what everyone believes – that you should keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them – convicted felons and people who have serious mental difficulties.”
Senator Risch is certainly not the only politician that is saying that the current background check system does not work. Many members of congress do not believe that background checks do any good. Risch is certainly not the only member saying that the Manchin-Toomey bill places a "burden on law-abiding citizens." And Risch is not the only member saying that criminals and the mentally ill will find a way to get a gun whether or not a criminal background check system exists. What these senators are not opening their eyes and hearts to is the possibility that legislation like this could prevent one more shooting. Legislation like this could prevent one more Newtown. Legislation like this could prevent one more person who could not get a gun otherwise from taking their life or the lives of others. Do we not have a moral responsibility to at least try? Do Senators Risch and Crapo not have a moral responsibility to ensure that a Newtown does not happen in one of our many elementary schools across the Gem State? Do they not have a moral responsibility to do everything in their power to bring down the suicide rate in Idaho where currently it is the second leading cause of death among Idahoans 15-34 and young men 10-14? Do they not have a moral responsibility to at least try?

As an Idahoan, I am not unfamiliar with guns. Like much of the rural West, guns are a way of life here. As a child, I grew up with guns in my household. I knew that my father kept rifles in the bottom of his closet, in their unlocked cases. We even kept a gun there that belonged to a neighbor who did not want the gun in her house with her four young boys. As a teenager, I knew that there were various guns in the gun cabinet in the house. Sometimes open, sometimes locked, the key to the gun cabinet was always near the cabinet. I remember often finding unsecured guns in the family car after one or more family member went out target shooting. Each of my brothers took hunter education and all of them hunt. Guns were not something I was ignorant about. However, of everyone in my family, I was the most averse to guns. My aversion stemmed from a childhood full of reasons to question whether guns should not all have a trigger lock, should not all be kept away from places where children might have access to them, should not exist on our streets if they exist in theaters of war for the only purpose of killing human beings, and yes, should not all require a background check upon purchase. None of these things have ever seemed unreasonable to me and all were arrived at thoughtfully in the wake of events that impacted my young life.

I remember watching my mother cry during the nightly news as they reported the school shooting in Stockton, California when I was four years old. At the time, my mom was finishing her teaching degree and, like the rest of the country, could not fathom how a person could target school children at a place where they felt safe and should have been safe. I was too young to understand what it meant, but in the self-aware world of a four-year-old, I knew I would be starting school soon. The gunman's history should have prevented him from purchasing the assault rifle that he used on that schoolyard.

When I was ten or eleven, a classmate of mine shot himself and bled to death as he waited for EMTs to get to his rural home in Albion, Idaho. The gun was an unsecured rifle belonging to his father. Whether or not he knew that the gun was loaded or intended to fire it was never known.

In my final year of elementary school, I was out trick-or-treating with my cousin as we watched life flight touch down on the football field at our elementary school. We later found out that her brother had shot someone at a Halloween party across town. All we knew that night was that we needed to be in the house, our parents fearing the unknown. Her brother, the shooter, was convicted of the crime. He had shot another cousin at a party, fueled my alcohol. As a minor, he was not legally allowed to own the handgun used.

As I got involved with Special Olympics as a teenager, I got to know a young man who, as a teenager not much older than me, shot himself in the head and failed in his attempted suicide. With severe brain damage, he spent the rest of his life a shell of his old self, something he was painfully aware of. Unfortunately, he had complete memory of the lead-up to his shooting and remembered his life before that day. The gun he used was an unsecured weapon belonging to his father. He, like my elementary school friend, had grown up with guns present and was not unfamiliar with their danger.

In the fall of 1997, a girl that I sat by on the school bus each day, a girl just three years older than me, stayed home from school one day and shot herself in the head in her bedroom. She was found later that day by her older brother, just before the school bus would have normally been dropping her off after school. The gun she used that day belonged to a family member.

The spring before I began high school, Columbine happened. It was timing like that of the Stockton shooting nearly 10 years earlier for me. And what scared me most about starting high school in the wake of Columbine is when I heard that a classmate had told someone that the shooters were misunderstood. That got him called into the counselor's office. What were the signs that something like what happened in Littleton was going to happen again? How was I to know if one of my classmates was capable of a similar act? All this time later, we know all about the guns that were used that day and how the gunmen acquired them. Preventing straw purchases would have made a difference that tragic day at Columbine High School.

In 2003, a troubled former classmate of mine was arrested for the murder of a man he had an altercation with over a drug deal. Tyson Buss shot and killed a man in an Idaho Falls alley. I had known Buss in my final years of elementary school and unfortunately, I was not surprised to find that he had been arrested. What scared me most about Buss' arrest for murder is that it brought me back to an incident that got him expelled from our elementary school. He assaulted a fifth grade teacher and was barely restrained by the 6'2" burly, Harley-riding, sixth grade teacher until the police could arrive. What might have happened had that 12-year-old had access to a gun?

As a college student at Idaho State, Virginia Tech happened. I was a part of student government then and we were asked to wear ribbons in honor of the lives lost on that campus. I remember having a meeting that week to discuss how ISU would be increasing security measures. The entire time I was thinking about how open the campus in Pocatello is and how anyone could walk onto campus from any number of locations. It was a terrifying thought. How do we keep our schools and campuses safe when access to guns is far too easy?

In his final year of high school, my younger brother lost a close friend of his who, after breaking up with his girlfriend, didn't see anything good in his life and went home and shot himself with a rifle of his father's that was not locked up.

A former friend and softball teammate of mine was murdered last year by her husband before he took his own life with an illegal handgun. Lisa England lost her young life in her Arimo home, leaving behind a 3-year-old child and an extended family that will wish for the rest of their lives that they had seen the signs. At the time, it was already the third gun death in Bannock County that year, something nearly unheard of.

Like most Americans, I was devastated by the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. In the hours and days that followed, all I could think about was the first grade classroom where my mother teaches. Her classroom has the exact split of male and female first graders as that of Lauren Rousseau's classroom of children that was massacred at Sandy Hook. I could not help but think of how close her classroom is to the front entrance of the school she teaches at. And for days afterward, I found myself holding back tears as I saw young children walking to their school bus stops. What happened that day should never happen again, but preventing another such tragedy is going to require whatever steps we can take as a country.

Just recently, a friend and former co-worker's boyfriend led the police on a high-speed chase through the city of Pocatello, arriving eventually at Petco where he took a young man hostage, effectively committing suicide by cop. Her boyfriend, a felon, was carrying an illegal handgun. His family spoke about the mental illness he had battled for several years, something he had under control for a time, but lost control of when he lost the health insurance coverage that had been paying for his treatment. Many have surmised that he did not want to return to prison and knew that his actions that day would have resulted in exactly that. In his state of mind, perhaps he felt his only out was suicide by cop. He left behind two young children. How might that day have ended had he not had access to that gun?

I realize that not all of these instances involved guns that would not have been attained had laws like those in the Manchin-Toomey bill been on the books, but some of them might have been prevented. And if just one of those shootings had been prevented, lives would have been saved.

Last week I listened to Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) talk about the tragedy in Newtown and the gun violence that occurs in this country on a daily basis. A segment of his floor speech on April 10th:
"But really, Mr. President it's happening every day. And this country has just gotten so callously used to gun violence that it's just raindrops. It's just background noise. And that reality, the one in which we are losing 30 Americans a day to gun violence in which a chart that shows you how many have died since December 14 is almost unreadable because it's a cast of thousands, that reality is just as unacceptable as what happened in Sandy Hook that day. And so the question is are we going to do anything about it or are we going to sit on our hands like we have for 20 years and accept the status quo with respect to everyday gun violence and these increased incidences of mass shootings? If we're really serious about doing our jobs here we can't."
I was struck by what he said about gun violence being "just raindrops...just background noise." Unfortunately, in my young life, that has been the case. As I looked back over all of the incidents of gun violence that have taken place in my twenty-seven years, I am afraid it may have become just raindrops and background noise. We cannot let this happen.

Today we will see how many members of the United States Senate truly grasp that we as a country have the responsibility to prevent as many shootings like Newtown, Aurora, the Tucson shooting that nearly took the life of a sitting congresswoman, Columbine, Virginia Tech,  Trolley Square, and the Cleveland School massacre. Just as important, we have a responsibility as a country, a moral responsibility, to prevent individual shootings where teenagers get their hands on guns and take their lives, where returning soldiers suffering through the hell of PTSD access a gun to take their own lives. Will this legislation prevent all of these things? Of course not, but it is a step and the first step that has made it this far since 1994. Now is the time.

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