I finally made myself listen to President Obama’s words as he addressed the grieving community of Newtown, Connecticut a few days ago. I assumed they would be wise and compassionate: he is a good man, a thoughtful man, one capable of deep complexity. It’s one of the reasons I trust him so much, even when I disagree with him.
But I think I was afraid, afraid he would shy away from touching the depth of the problem. Because as much as we as a society failed those kids at Sandy Hook Elementary School last week – and we did, fail them, in what we have done and in what we have failed to do – Lord knows we have failed so so many other children as well. It’s easy to shy away from talking about other tragic failures, as though doing so will somehow diminish the horror of what happened in Newtown. But I agree with Adrienne Rich, who wrote in her poem “Hunger,” dedicated to Audre Lorde:
Quantify suffering, you could rule the world …
They *can* rule the world while they can persuade us
our pain belongs in some order.
Is death by famine worse than death by suicide
than a life of famine and suicide …
And the truth is that we are failing kids left and right, with deadly, tragic consequences, every single day all across this country. We have failed not just the victims of mass shootings, but the victims of every shooting, when we fail to find the political courage and wisdom to regulate guns in some sane way.
I went to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence website hoping to find a few statistics about kids and gun violence, and I was overwhelmed.
Did you know all this? I did not:
- In 2007, 3,067 children and teens ages 0-19 were killed by firearms in the U.S. (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC)).
That’s more than eight kids a day. Almost 50 a week. A mass murder of children by guns every single week.
- In 2008, 20,702 children and teens ages 0-19 were injured with a gun in the U.S. (NCIPC).
That’s more than 56 kids injured by guns every day. Every day. Almost 400 a week. Fifty dead every week and another 400 injured. Every week.
And then there’s this:
- Twenty-two percent of U.S. teenagers (ages 14 to 17) report having witnessed a shooting (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, p. 6).
Twenty-two percent. Let that sink in. And then consider this:
- Community violence, including gun violence, has the equivalent emotional impact on children as war or natural disaster
And lest you think this is an “urban” problem, apparently not:
- Youth (ages 0 to 19) in the most rural counties of the country are as likely to die from a gunshot as those living in the most urban counties. Rural kids have more gun suicides and unintentional shooting deaths, while urban kids die more often of gun homicides (Nance, 2010).
So I was heartened to see these words from the President. Let’s hope he means it, and that we do too: that this is intolerable, and that we must change.
This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.
And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations?
Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?
Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know they are loved and teaching them to love in return?
Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?
I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change. Since I’ve been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims.
And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and in big cities all across America, victims whose — much of the time their only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.
We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.