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Back From Washington, Wondering if the Message Got Through

Martha's Vineyard Times May 18, 2000


It was 2 am. My husband had safely navigated through the traffic around New York City, then pulled over, exhausted. Our three-year-old had long since fallen asleep in his car seat in the back. I took over the driving and finally stopped at a Motel 6 outside of New Haven, Conn.

I sleepily asked for a room, and answered the night clerk's queries. "Non-smoking, if you have it ... Downstairs, please." Then the clerk glanced at the button still pinned to my dress which said, "Million Mom March. Sensible Gun Laws. Safe Kids."

"Were you in Washington for that March?" he asked.

I nodded. He looked at me, brow furrowed. "Do you think you got the message through? I mean, do you think they heard you?" He was what my father would have called a "mensch," a regular guy, about 40. It surprised me to find him speaking to me this way, so intently, through the thick, bullet-proof glass of the motel’s night window.

I passed my credit card to him through the slot under the window. I knew what he meant.

"I hope so," was all I could muster.

"You know," he said, "Another kid got shot today. They had it on the news. Why do they have to have guns?" He shook his head. "Why haven't they done something sooner?"

At that moment, I saw in his eyes an emotion which I recognized. I knew then why he felt that I, a total stranger with a short haircut and a ring in her nose, was somehow a kindred spirit.

His was the same emotion that led me to drag my family to the nation’s capital last weekend. It was the same emotion I found on the face of every mother in the crowd there. It was the same emotion, almost too painful to speak of, that blared through the Mall as speaker after speaker recounted their own personal tragedy bought about by gun violence.

Indeed, why haven't we done something sooner? We have all heard the shameful statistics. Twelve children are shot each day in the United States. Gun homicide is the second leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 15 and 24. American children are many times more likely to die from gunfire than in any other industrialized nation. We have heard the terrifying accounts of gun violence in schools across the country. Why have we been so remiss in the defense of our children?

Clearly, we have been living in the belief that it could not happen to us, it could not happen here.

We think our neighbors seem like such nice people, they couldn't possibly keep loaded guns. We think our community is so closely knit that none of our children could ever feel compelled to solve a dispute with gunfire. The press coverage following the tragedy at Columbine High School last year reported shock and disbelief among the people of Littleton, Colo., that this could happen in their town, in their school. Similarly, it is easy on our little Island off of America to feel that we are somehow insulated from the social ills of the rest of the nation, and yet murder and drug-related violence have touched us even here.

I heard about an incident in March that shocked me out of my complacency. One of my most promising students at Cape Cod Community College was held at gun point by police on the quiet streets of Wellfleet when he reached into his pocket to turn off his Walkman. The officer had been trained to expect a gun at any turn. I was deeply shaken. I thought, "Enough is enough," and I began to get involved.

Sunday’s Million Mom March showed clearly that America’s communities are waking up to the facts. An estimated three-quarters of a million moms, family members, and supporters came to Washington, D.C., to voice their outrage and grief and to commit to fighting for American children. But the momentum must not stop there.

The Million Mom March organizers advocate sensible federal gun control legislation, including licensing and gun safety education of all gun owners, gun registration, trigger locks, and waiting periods for gun purchases. Legislators must be urged to move such legislation forward in spite of the protestations of the National Rifle Association and their lobbyists. Even more important than these legislative efforts, however, is communication. We must learn to speak of the unspeakable and promote dialogue about guns and violence in our community. Parents and teachers need to speak openly and frankly with children about guns and violence and help them learn to settle disputes with words. We must teach them the value of life and give them the tools to protect it. Their safety depends on it, even here on the Vineyard.

We left Motel 6 refreshed Monday morning and made the 2:45 ferry back to the Island. On my way home, I stopped by Leslie’s Pharmacy on Main Street in Vineyard Haven to refill a prescription. I do not know the name of the woman who works behind the counter in the back, but I see her often at Leslie’s or around the Island. I perused the newspaper for accounts of the Million Mom March and mentioned to her that I had just returned from Washington.

"Good for you," she said. Then she got a familiar, sad look in her eye. "Why do they have to have guns?" she said, and shook her head. "Why do they have to have guns?"


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