As regular readers of this blog know, I believe that storytelling is necessary for having fruitful conversations around our culture’s most troubling questions and issues. When we focus on talking points and “issues,” we get talking heads and shouting matches. When we tell and listen to stories, we get empathy and complexity and nuance.
This week, the stories that Newtown’s grieving parents tell, of sending their first graders off to school on a chilly December morning and learning later at a local firehouse that they did not survive a gunman’s rampage, changed lawmakers’ minds. The families’ visits to Congressional representatives led to a 68 to 31 Senate vote agreeing to debate stronger gun laws, including wider background checks on gun buyers.
Quoted in the New York Times, Mark Barden, whose son Daniel died at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, said, “Every day is hard for me….Making lunch for my kids is hard for me. Sleeping is hard. Waking up is hard. That being said, I just feel I need to be doing this.” Many other parents quoted in news stories this week have said something similar—that they don’t think of themselves as advocates or lobbyists, that their grief is, of course, immense and encompassing, that they simply feel they must do something to address the factors that contributed to their children’s murders, including the ability of a mentally unstable young man to possess a gun capable of firing more than 150 rounds in less than 5 minutes.
In other positive news, proponents of mental health reforms say they are hopeful that improvements in community mental health care and other services will be part of any gun control bill.
That is, if we end up with some kind of gun control bill. Despite these glimmers, the possibility for gun law reform is still just that—a possibility, far from a done deal. One of many obstacles is that Democrats from conservative states are unlikely to alienate their constituents by voting for stronger gun laws. Again quoted in the Times, Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota said, “In our part of the country, this [gun control] isn’t an issue. This is a way of life.”
I think I know what she meant by that—that gun ownership, hunting for sport and food, fathers presenting children with their first rifles and teaching them to shoot—is a way of life.
But mass murder with high-capacity weapons is not a way of life.
Allowing people who shouldn’t own guns because of criminal history or psychological instability is not a way of life.
The central gun law measures being considered, of expanding background checks, making it easier for police to track guns used in crimes, and limiting types of ammunition, do not interfere with the rights and interests of hunters or parents who want to teach their kids to shoot.
Today marks four months from the murders at Sandy Hook. Since that day, more than 3,300 Americans have been killed by gun violence. As Sojourners’ Jim Wallis said of his joining other faith leaders on the National Mall this week to advocate for continued work toward stronger gun laws,
There are many law abiding and responsible gun owners in this country. And I understand that those who play by the rules might feel like they are being punished for the wrongdoing of others. But no legislation being considered would end gun ownership as we know it. What it would do is begin to make owning a gun look a little more like owning a car. In that process we can make it more expensive and more legally punishing for criminals to get guns and make our streets and our schools safer for all. The gun laws on the table are just common sense; they bring us back to the common good.
Many Newtown families, awash in grief and pain, have chosen to tell their stories—their terrible, heartbreaking stories—because they believe in the common good. Let us continue to do the same. Tell our stories. Listen to the stories of those whose families have been devastated by gun violence. Assure people that their family stories, of generations of responsible gun ownership, of mornings spent learning to hunt with a beloved parent or grandparent, are also important stories. And that the drumbeat of anguish and resolve that is driving us, tiny step by tiny step, closer to reasonable limits on gun ownership, can honor all of these stories.
If you haven’t already, please consider joining #ItIsEnough, an informal coalition of Christians working toward stronger gun laws. As a co-founder of #ItIsEnough, I write about gun violence and legislation on the 14th of every month. I do not allow comments on these posts, because my focus is on furthering the cause of stronger gun laws, not debating the issues.