What Will Help on Guns?

Editorial

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Published April 24, 2014, issue of May 02, 2014.
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A troubling new play at Manhattan’s Public Theater begins with an eerie scene of a girl laid out on a table as if in a mortuary, and ends with an enigmatic question. For the 90 minutes in between, the audience witnesses what happens after a disturbed former student opens fire in the crowded library of his high school, initiating the kind of deadly rampage that has sadly become a familiar feature of contemporary American life.

The play is called “The Library.” It echoes like the latest school shooting.

We’re not giving away any of playwright Scott Z. Burns’ script by recounting its closing words. In matter-of-fact tones, several characters describe in detail the three different firearms used with abandon by the gunman. Then Chloe Grace Moretz, the brilliant leading actress who plays a student survivor of the shooting, says: “You’re left with only your scars to mark the void. All you could choose to do is go on, or not.”

To which her character’s mother replies: “Did that help?”

There, with dramatic economy, Burns lays it out: the instruments of carnage; the stark emotional toll, the challenge to the audience. Will this drama, inspired partly by the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, help galvanize the public? Will the fact that it all seems so familiar finally rouse our civic anger?

If Columbine didn’t bring about sensible, national gun safety laws, and Virginia Tech didn’t, and Gabrielle Giffords’ near death-experience didn’t, and even Newtown didn’t, what will?

The recent announcement that former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg plans to spend $50 million this year building a nationwide grassroots network to motivate voters who feel strongly about curbing gun violence may provide the answer. Bloomberg is certainly asking the right question: Why should one organization, the National Rifle Association, exercise such overwhelming political power when it reflects only a fraction of American public opinion?

“They say, ‘We don’t care. We’re going to go after you,’” Bloomberg said of the NRA in an interview with The New York Times, explaining how the lobby threatened to attack politicians who refused to go along with its pro-gun agenda. So, Bloomberg added, “We’ve got to make them afraid of us.”

Bloomberg’s money, welcome and necessary though it is, represents only one part of the answer, however. It will be effective only if it is matched in passion and raw determination by voters and activists willing to put aside other causes to focus for once on this.

The nurses, physicians and other health care professionals who have mobilized in the past to push for legislation helpful to their practices and pocketbooks need to make it clear that senseless gun violence in this country is a serious public health concern.

The activists who have successfully expanded the definition of civil rights — from the right to board a public bus in a wheelchair to the right of gay men and lesbians to marry —must see gun safety as a civil right, too. The right to public safety. The right to know that if they step into a school or a store or a bar, the person at the next table or at the checkout line isn’t carrying a concealed weapon.

After the latest shootings at Jewish institutions in Kansas City, this needs to leap to the top of the Jewish communal agenda, too.

The elected officials so adept at reading public opinion polls should recognize that an overwhelming majority of Americans — including members of the NRA — favor expanding the background check system for gun buyers at the state and national level, the key aim of the Bloomberg initiative, called Everytown for Gun Safety. That’s the name of the new umbrella organization incorporating two groups that Bloomberg had been funding: Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which started as a Facebook page after the Newtown shootings in December 2012 and now has chapters in all 50 states.

It’s the mothers — including Jewish mothers — who really need to mobilize.

We’re not being sexist here. Just strategic.

Kristin A. Goss, an associate professor of public policy and political science at Duke University, wrote a book after Columbine asking why America hadn’t developed a strong gun control movement. She analyzed other life-and-death movements and found “three common elements: funding from wealthy patrons, incremental strategies that delivered momentum-building victories and maternal calls to action,” she wrote recently in The New York Times. In other words: money, momentum and moms.

Maternal calls to action, you may remember, spurred a movement to curb drunk driving that has had demonstrable, life-saving results. You can see the same passion to hold together families and communities when reading the first-person stories on the Moms Demand Action website: stories of the infuriating waste of human life brought on by people who should not have had access to guns.

Men still hold the preponderance of political power in this country and so it may well be up to women to become the swing vote for this cause. Two Jewish women have lent their traumatized voices to this campaign — Giffords and Veronique Pozner, mother of the only Jewish child killed in the Newtown massacre — and yet have little to show for their heroic efforts. Twice as many states have loosened gun laws than approved restrictions since Newtown.

In “The Library,” we learn that the murderer purchased his weapons at a garage sale and at a Wal-Mart store. Could the problem be any more dramatically clear?


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