Unfit to Own a Gun

by Katharine Blake McFarland

I was in my office at the Children's Defense Fund when I heard that someone had shot and killed an unknown number of children at a school in Newtown, Connecticut. I picked up the phone and called one of the top gun safety organizations in the country, and asked to speak to their policy director. When I told him who I was, and where I was calling from, he said, “Wow, I'm so sorry. What a day for you guys.” I digested the misplaced apology—there I sat, safe in my office in Washington, D.C. while mothers and fathers pulled in to the Sandy Hook Elementary School parking lot—but managed to say something like, “you, too.” Then there was a beat of silence that would have felt uncomfortable on another day, like standing too close to a stranger, but on that day it was forgiven because words prove themselves deficient on days like that, and in the face of events for which we are all to blame, apology might be the truest beginning. “So, what are you guys going to do?” I finally asked him, and we starting talking strategy.

This is how it felt in D.C.: even in the earliest moments after the earliest Newtown headlines, change seemed close enough to touch. The shooting was like a terrible wave rising in the distance, but it was a wave that might carry us to shore if we could catch it and the current stayed strong. It was opportunistic, surely, but the alternative seemed worse: to grieve and then do nothing, to let it pass, until the next mass shooting when we would grieve and do nothing again.

So I did what we do in D.C. In my role at CDF, I attended and organized meetings, rallies, and press conferences. I went to events on Capitol Hill and at the White House. We asked volunteers to call and visit their elected officials, and we supported the work of incredible grassroots groups like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. I researched numbers and drafted statements. I hugged mothers who had lost their children in previous mass shootings, like Virginia Tech and Aurora. I hugged mothers who had lost their children in the crossfire of gang violence in Chicago. This was my first time working on guns, in my first job out of law school, but it was not new subject matter for CDF, who first began collecting data on children and guns in 1979.

How do you get people to listen? Numbers help put it in perspective. If you add up the soldiers killed in action in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, you get 52,183 lives lost. During that same time (1963 to 2010), 166,500 children and teens were shot and killed by guns here at home. That's three times as many children as soldiers in war, and averages out to 3,470 children and teens killed every year. Or, 174 classrooms of 20 children a year. Or, 174 Newtown's a year.

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