Originally published in The Kansas City Star.
I’ve been listening and watching the news for several days since the violence in Parkland, Florida and wondering how did we, once again, allow more of you to be mowed down by an apparently disturbed, young man wielding a high-powered, military-style assault weapon with a large capacity magazine. This is especially sad and ridiculous, even infuriating, considering the situation was both predictable and preventable.
Seventeen more of you dead in Florida. Valentine’s Day. 2018.
If this were the only such incident, or at least an infrequent one, it would be immensely sad and tragic. The reality that such massacres are now relatively commonplace, however, is more than that. It is unbelievably incredible. Undeniably horrendous. It’s totally incomprehensible that these mass murders have turned America’s students into the most endangered group of people in any industrialized country in the world.
According to the New York Times (2/15/18), more than 438 students and teachers have been shot in at least 239 school shootings since Sandy Hook in 2012. There have been 63 people injured or killed in 6 school shootings in the first 45 days of 2018. Education Week, 2/1/18
Although mass shootings have been generally increasing in different settings, schools are unfortunately frequent targets. “The third deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history was at Virginia Tech University in 2007, when 32 people were killed, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which is tied for the fourth-highest casualty shooting, with 26 deaths.” ABC news, 2/15/18
This carnage is spreading like a raging infection left untreated. The difference between an infection and school shootings, however, is that at least a doctor diagnoses, treats, and tries to cure the infection. Politicians and other adults who should act like doctors, caring for a nation infected by gun violence, make absolutely no effort to diagnose and treat this disease. In fact, many argue that if gun violence is a disease, the best way to cure it is to inject it with more guns and bullets. That makes no sense and it does nothing to protect you all – the future of our country.
The reality is that Congress has refused to even consider the public health impacts of gun violence. They passed legislation prohibiting the Center for Disease Control (CDC) from even researching the issue. You only have to live in a city suffering from any level of gun violence to understand just how big a public health issue it is. State government has aggravated the problem by refusing to allow cities like ours and St. Louis from doing anything to try to control the number and types of guns on our streets and in the hands of those who shouldn’t have them.
Students, it should be clear to you by now that the adults responsible for protecting you have been unable and/or unwilling and/or incapable of doing so. They see you shot and dying, wring their hands, shake their heads, say they care and then pass laws to make it easier for almost anyone to get any gun. This is not leadership. It’s politics at its worst.
There is so much money tied up in gun manufacturing and sales that politicians become weak in the knees when they consider it may be withheld from them or used to finance an opponent if they dare advocate for common sense.
The NRA spent $11,438,118 to support Donald Trump and another $19,756,346 to oppose Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. And how about contributions to other politicians? The NRA pours money into elections for both the U.S. Senate and House to maintain the insanity that is our gun policy in the United States. They make contributions to, or spend significant sums in support of lots of “right minded” politicians or in opposition to their “wayward” opponents. Some argue that the NRA is, in reality, more of a marketing agent for gun manufacturers, rather than a benign club of gun lovers and second amendment protectors. You be the judge:
Gun manufacturers in 2015 showed annual revenue of $13.56 billion with $1.5 billion in profit. Gun and ammunition stores chipped in with $3.1 billion in revenue and $478 million in profit (IBIS World). 10,847,797 pistols, revolvers, shotguns, assault weapons, etc. were manufactured in the U.S. in 2015 (ATF). Only 4% of that total was exported outside the U.S. It is estimated that there are 270-310 million guns in the U.S. which has a population of 323.1 million men, women and children in 2016.
With so much money involved and so many politicians and businesses addicted to it, it’s not surprising that not even surviving victims or images of the bloodied and destroyed bodies of first graders are able to shake common sense from the “cold dead hands” of those who have an interest in maintaining the status quo.
Students, I’m afraid this country needs YOU to show the ADULTS the way! You, those who are increasingly in the crosshairs of murderers, need to protect yourselves, and by extension, US! You may be our last and best hope for change. You can’t leave it to us adults alone. We need you to demand that the politicians protect your constitutional right to life with as much or more commitment and intransigence as they apply to protecting a dubious right for 19-year-olds, domestic abusers, and domestic terrorists.
You have to unite in your own self-interest. I know though, having raised kids of my own into and out of school age, that some of you don’t think such violence could ever visit you or your school. “Those things don’t happen where I live.” Really?! Here’s a short, partial list of locations of where students and teachers were killed:
- Florence, Alabama
- Ashland County, Ohio
- Knights Ferry, California
- New York City, New York
- Chattanooga, Tennessee
- Santa Monica, California
- Danville, Virginia
- Brazil, Indiana
- Charleston, West Virginia
- Bemidji, Minnesota
- Liberty, Mississippi
- Chicago, Illinois
- Manes, Missouri
- Cincinnati, Ohio
You may believe that this type of violence only happens to “other people.” Don’t believe it, and remember—you are “other people” to other people.
It’s time for you to unite to protect yourselves. You have to make your voices heard and your faces seen. Don’t listen to those who tell you that you are powerless, too young, or don’t have enough money. Acting together you can be powerful if you are visible and insistent. You aren’t too young to die so you are, by definition, old enough to fight for your lives. The pressure of money has paralyzed the adults. The lack of money can motivate you to innovate, inspire, and succeed.
I grew up in the 60’s, graduating high school during the height of the Vietnam War in 1969. Students then were failed by the adult politicians who sent them off to a disfavored war, somewhat like the adult failure to do anything to protect them from gun violence now. Ironically, assault weapons were the weapons of choice in both settings.
Students in the 60’s were extremely instrumental in bringing the Vietnam War to a close. They had no voice in who was being drafted and sent off to war unless they were from families of means and/or influence inclined to protect their own with a medical diagnosis of bone spurs or flat feet. Those without such means, disproportionately black and brown, served and, too frequently, died.
Then as now, students were on the front lines. Then as now, students lost their lives when they should have been planning families and their futures. Then, as in now, students are calling BS on the excuses. They rebelled! They staged sit-ins. They marched, protested, and burned their draft cards. They took a strong position against the war, and it made the adults stop, look, and listen.
Some of the protests, like the demonstrations in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, were co-opted by the radical wing of the protest movement and ended in violence. Other protests brought about violent over-reactions by the government, when students were shot and killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State in 1970. The stance against student shootings and deaths in today’s school shooting tsunami, however, should never incite the violence of the 60’s, but it should incite the commitment and activism. Social media could actually be used to accomplish something other than fun, games and bullying.
You are more savvy than we were in the 60s. You also have more tools and resources available to you. Be innovative and smart in your approach and your goals. Be honorable, respectful and focused. Use facts and data to prove your points and achieve sustainable solutions. Recognizing that this issue is very volatile, and that some will be critical of your engagement, emphasize productive discussion rather than argument and speak to pragmatism rather than ideology. Be proud of your approach and of your commitment.
You must protect yourselves and either convince or shame the adults into following you towards common sense controls over these potential instruments of your deaths. Limit access to assault weapons. Strengthen background checks and make them universal. Take the handcuffs off of the CDC and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). You may in fact be the glue that finally helps unite and focus all the adult groups that have been struggling to pass common sense gun safety measures.
I’ve seen the young people from Parkland, Florida speaking out so bravely about what has happened to their lives. And I’ve met so many intelligent and engaged young people right here in Kansas City since I became mayor. Unfortunately, adults have proven that when it comes to sensible gun control, the politicians won’t listen to us. But perhaps they will listen to you, our children. So please, show us the way.
Some of you have already started organizing, meeting, speaking out. Soon, many of you will be marching. Keep at it until they start listening to your demands for change and take action. Show us that our country’s young people – black, white, brown, gay, straight, religious, atheist, poor, rich, rural, urban – can all come together to save your own lives and in the process, save our country from ourselves.
This is your time to take charge and show our nation the way. This time you lead and I, and other adults, will join. Your lives may very well depend on it.
Mayor Sly James
That is a great letter, Mayor James. I also appreciate your words in your interview on KCUR-FM’s Central Standard.