A gun store opened in McLean, VA, – an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C. – its back door 40 feet from an elementary school, its front door 60 feet away. It sells the full range of weapons, from small handguns to large-clip assault weapons.
The store had been kicked out of Arlington, VA, a neighboring community. Given a roughly three-month notice, the business community felt it was inappropriate for the town and would hurt business. Three months gave people time to mobilize. The landlord broke the lease.
Having learned, NOVA Firearms posted no advance notice and slipped in on October first. Two days later about 250 citizens and frightened parents, many connected to the PTA, picketed in front of the store, holding such signs as “Remember Newtown,” “Our love goes to Newtown families,” and “2,700 children killed by guns each year.”
I asked a fellow sign-holder what had brought him to the sidewalk with a sign. “See that brick building and the window above it?” I did. I could have walked to it in about 12 seconds. “My daughter is in second grade there this year. That could be her classroom.” He had tears in his eyes. My eyes welled at the thought of my granddaughter, who had just delightedly entered second grade in a neighboring town.A few days later, I was a guest on a local TV show with two worried parents and a county school board member. My remarks, centered on “home” and six C’s – culture, conveners, citizenship, Congress, cash and conscience (or credo).
Culture: America’s culture is dynamic. It changes. We have changed it from elimination of slavery to civil rights legislation, voting rights for women and expanded views of marriage. The NRA has changed from a respected organization of gun sportsmen, gun collectors, advocates for safety and insuring that guns don’t get into the wrong hands to an organization helping to defeat any legislation that would deny offenders and domestic violence abusers and mental health patients the right to own guns, that would ban assault weapons, and that would close the gun hole loophole. The NRA has changed – dramatically so – and so must we.
Conveners: Anyone who convenes must be worried. School superintendents and principals (Newtown, Roseburg, Columbine, Virginia Tech); Ministers/priests, (Charleston); theatre owners, (Aurora). And these to mention only a few, not including employers of any size, coaches – anyone responsible for gathering people. We have allowed the NRA to walk over our thresholds, robbing us of our home in the literal and metaphoric senses of that word – where we live, where we educate our children, where we worship, where we shop, where we go out for family dinners. Just last week, a teenager from Baltimore said to me, “Don’t talk to me about Syria. I’m in Syria and Iraq every day going to school. I’m never not scared.” I don’t say this to stoke fear but to stoke outrage.
Citizenship: Each of us can and must act. Ursula Hegi in her stunning book, “Stones from the River” reflects on the rise of the Nazis not as a sudden, catalytic event, but a succession of small, seemingly insignificant steps. “Oh, I don’t buy bread from Zimmerman’s anymore. You know the rye isn’t quite as good as it used to be.” The owner, of course, is Jewish. It can be small steps taken, or actions not taken. In other words, an aggregation of citizen decisions or non-decisions sets the climate, establishes a culture.
The range of possible civic actions is wide as we choose, from picketing to fighting for legislation that would free us (for we are increasingly imprisoned by the threat of gun violence) and for legislators who would carry the message. Because the gun store is so local, so close to “home,” my wife and I, and I hope hundreds and hundreds of others will go to stores nearby and withdraw our business in protest. These actions should be done without anger, and for me it will be both sad and hard. My wife and I have been banking at the local bank for over 30 years. I know the tellers; I know some of their kids; they’ve seen pictures of mine. They’ve been fantastic. I will tell them this and thank them, but we will bank elsewhere, promising to return when the store closes. A similar, but stronger, message to the service center where our cars have been brilliantly serviced over the years. And then to the gas stations and to the restaurants and other stores right across the street. Note: real estate brokers should be worried. Housing prices near the store will drop. One parent on the picket line told me that they moved to McLean in large part because of the quality of the schools and the safety: she and her husband plan to move if the gun store stays. Ask what you can do as parent, doctor, lawyer, shopper. We’re all into convenience; our lives are busy. But accept inconvenience by driving a little farther to get what you need. Have the courage to tell your faviorite stores why you’re doing what you are doing. One of the 20th Century’s leading theologians said, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” By not acting, we are complicit.
Congress: Support those on the local, state and federal levels who back sensible gun control legislation. Polls show that most responsible gun owners do not support the NRA’s extreme positions. They know what guns can do; they know how to use them, and they know that assault weapons do not belong in citizens’ hands, the hands of ex-felons, mental health patients and domestic violence abusers.
Cash: Be willing to help back such candidates. The NRA puts millions into campaign races, dwarfing contributions to those who would support sensible gun control legislation.
Conscience or Credo: If not the economic argument, won’t our conscience, our set of beliefs spur us to act – school children slaughtered, a prayer group murdered…? What does it take to move us from our comfort zones?
What have we as a society come to when kids fear to go to school? My priest friend worries that “something might happen” during his Sunday service? Safety – freedom from fear. This is the first promise of government. We have failed to keep that promise.
We can and will change things, if we are courageous enough to be that change.