Parkland – part three

As part of my continuing reflection on the Parkland shooting, I wanted to share this moving video of a Parkland student speaking in a listening session with the president, who was holding notes to help him respond with seeming empathy. I continue to react with awe to the voices and activism of the Parkland students and the other teens who have mobilized to demand that lawmakers and other authorities take steps to help protect students and the general public from gun violence.

While many people are advancing serious strategies, others have responded with suggestions that are problematic. The president and some others are promoting the idea of arming teachers, which is opposed by teachers’ organizations and many individual teachers, parents, school board and community members. There was an armed police officer on duty at the high school in Parkland, but he, despite his training and experience, did not intervene in the shooting and has since resigned. How could teachers, with much lower levels of training and experience, ever hope to wound or kill an armed intruder without shooting bystanders? How many accidental discharges or mistakes would there be if 20% of all teachers were armed? In other countries that have suffered a mass shooting and taken effective action, the solution has always been to reduce the firepower in civilian hands, not increase it.

I am also appalled to report that the member of the House of Representatives from my district, Claudia Tenney, has made a number of reprehensible remarks after Parkland, most notably that “so many of these people that commit the mass murders wind up being Democrats.” (There is no data to back up this claim.)

I find this particularly offensive to those of us who live in the Binghamton area. When the mass shooting at the American Civic Association here occurred in 2009, it did not matter whether the shooter was a Republican, Democrat, independent, or not a voter at all. What mattered was that people were killed and wounded, families and communities shattered, and a beloved civic institution damaged. That Representative Tenney could be so dismissive of those of us in the southern part of her district as she vociferously supports a gun manufacturer nearer to where she lives is ye another reason that many of us have already mobilized to hold her to account for her views and votes and to back strong candidates to oppose her in the November election. We deserve a representative who is thoughtful, honest, and committed to the common good.

continued response to Parkland

Since my first post touching on the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, I have continued to be impressed by the response of the students at the school and other teens. They have been speaking out strongly in traditional and social media, at rallies and public gatherings, calling on local, state, and national authorities and elected officials to protect them and the rest of the public by banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, strengthening background checks and licensing, and improving mental health services.

They are making plans for a march in Washington, DC and other cities on March 24. There are also plans for a nationwide student walkout on April 20th, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine massacre, the first mass shooting at a high school that sent shockwaves across the country.

There are some early indications that their message is having an impact on politicians. While long-time gun-control advocates are adding their voices to those of the students, some additional people are speaking out. Just this morning, I saw an interview with a wealthy long-time donor to Republican candidates, stating that he will no longer give to politicians who oppose common-sense gun control measures, such as an assault weapon ban. During a previous time when the United States did have an assault weapons ban, the rate of mass shootings was significantly lower.

The United States also has the examples of many other nations who protect their citizens from gun violence with stricter gun regulations. These countries also have better health care access, which means that fewer people in their communities have the sorts of untreated mental health problems that lead them to harm themselves and others. (I realize that most mental health diagnoses do not involve violence, but society is also served when each member has access to the full range of health and preventive services.)

Yesterday at church, we had a minute of silent prayer for the victims of the Parkland shooting. While my mind went first to those who were killed or wounded, it also went to the teen-aged gunman. Our society failed him as well. Despite numerous encounters with school authorities, police, and social services, he was left to fend for himself after the death of his adoptive mother without access to continuing mental health services. Proper treatment and enhanced background checks might have prevented him from killing and wounding so many people.

Mass shootings should not be the price the United States has to pay because of the Second Amendment. Contrary to the interpretation that some now hold, the intent of the Second Amendment was to protect the public from attack. There was no standing army at that time, so the “well-regulated militia” of which the amendment speaks was the defense against foreign invasion. Guns in more rural areas would also have been needed for hunting and for protection from bears, cougars, etc., but the right to bear arms was not intended as a blanket right for any kind of weaponry to be owned by anyone anytime. The United States already does restrict many kinds of military weapons from civilian ownership; it would not be unconstitutional to add more types of guns and ammunition to this list.

After other mass shootings, particularly Sandy Hook, it seemed that the country might have reached a tipping point where public opinion was strong enough to overcome the National Rifle Association and other anti-gun control groups.  Sadly, while there were some changes in some states, such as New York, the overall policies in the country either remained the same or became even more lax regarding gun access.

Will Parkland, with the strong voices of the teens ringing out, finally lead to societal change, the passage of gun control legislation, and better mental health care?

There is hope.

 

Handel, the ACA, and Parkland

On Saturday, my daughters E and T and I, with Baby ABC in tow, attended a choral sing of Handel’s Messiah Part I plus Hallelujah Chorus. The Madrigal Choir of Binghamton and their director Bruce Borton, choral director/professor emeritus at Binghamton University, organized the sing, with Bruce directing and Madrigal Choir members serving as soloists and section leaders. Volunteers from the Binghamton Community Orchestra provided a twenty-piece orchestra to accompany us. It was so much fun!

I had a number of friends among the choral attendees from my long-time affiliation with University Chorus. It was nice before we began to introduce ABC to friends. Her smile and wide eyes added to the already high spirits in the room. I also love every opportunity to sing with my daughters. We are all sopranos, so we get to sit together and sing.

The event featured a free-will offering for the American Civic Association, which, since 1939, has served the Binghamton area with immigration services, refugee resettlement, citizenship classes, and cultural and ethnic preservation and education.  In these days when some in the United States, including the President, are not supportive of immigration, the ACA and their work in our community are more important than ever.

Anything involving the ACA has a special poignancy because, in 2009, a mentally ill gunman opened fire there, killing fourteen and wounding four. Most of those killed were immigrants or foreign nationals affiliated with Binghamton University. There is a beautiful memorial featuring sculptures of doves in flight a short distance from the ACA building, which reopened a few months after the shooting.

When news broke of the Parkland, Florida school shooting on Valentine’s Day, I had the familiar thought of “not again” coupled with the thought that this atrocity too would probably result in “thoughts and prayers” from those in power, but no action to curb gun violence.

In 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, New York State passed the SAFE Act, which has a number of provisions on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and ammunition, background checks, and mental health. It doesn’t mean that there will never be another mass shooting in New York, but violent crime rates have fallen. New York is also proactive in making mental health treatment more available, which is important not only in preventing the small number of people with mental illness who are also violent from using firearms but also in keeping the much larger number of people who become suicidal from shooting themselves.

It seem unlikely that Florida Governor Rick Scott and the Florida legislature will enact similar policies despite the Parkland school shooting and the Orlando Pulse Nightclub massacre. It would also be possible for the United States Congress to finally listen to the vast majority of the general public and of gunowners who favor stronger background checks and other gun control measures.

Unfortunately, such action is also unlikely on the federal level, despite the horrific history of mass shootings and other gun violence and the eloquent and poignant voices of the survivors in Parkland. Sadly, this Congress and President have been moving gun policy and mental health care in the opposite direction. The first legislation DT signed as president was to rescind a rule making it more difficult for some people with mental illness to pass background checks for gun purchases. A current bill in Congress would make concealed carry permits granted by one state valid in all other states. The Trump budget calls for cuts in mental health care funding. These and comments from Congressional leadership indicate that the platitudes will continue without any meaningful action to prevent further bloodshed.

In the 2018 Congressional election, the candidates’ stance on gun control and on mental health care will definitely be important in my decision-making. Millions of others will join me and maybe we will finally get some national legislation to help reduce the plague of gun violence in the United States.

another mass shooting

Another week, another horrific mass shooting in America.

Another post I did not want to have occasion to write.

As some of you know, I live in the Binghamton, New York area, which was the scene of a 2009 mass shooting at the American Civic Association. Because of this, I know that these crimes can happen anywhere in our country. We lost the sense of “it can’t happen here” years ago.

Every time there is another mass shooting, much of the public response seems the same. “It’s a mental health issue, not a gun issue.” (Unless it is Muslim shooter, in which case it is a terrorism issue, not a gun issue.) “It’s disrespectful to talk about gun control when people are in mourning.” Corollary: we can talk about gun control later, except that we as a country are always in mourning/recovery from a mass shooting because they happen so frequently, so the “appropriate time” for the discussion never arrives. “The Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms.” “The guns were all legally purchased.” “This (insert gun control proposal here) would not have stopped (insert particular mass shooting here) from happening.”

Enough. Time for a reality check.

The issue is complicated. It needs and deserves thoughtful analysis and strategies to prevent future incidences. It needs and deserves consistent attention from the public and from public officials, because it is about the health, safety, and well-being of individuals and the country.

Yes, the mental health treatment system in the United States needs to be more robust, affordable, and compassionate. The shooter at the ACA was known to be mentally ill; his father begged the state of New York not to issue him a gun license, but the laws at the time allowed it. To its credit, New York made some legal changes to tighten qualifications for gun licenses and accessories like high-capacity magazines. New York has also made mental health treatment more accessible, as has the Affordable Care Act on the national level. Anyone who is serious about preventing mass shootings and other forms of violence needs to be serious about funding outreach and access to mental health services.

This leads to discussion of another characteristic that many mass shooters share, a history of domestic abuse. It lends even more weight to the current growth in public awareness of how widespread sexual harassment and assault are in our society. Abuse of all sorts is at its roots an abuse of power. Firearms in the hands of an abuser multiply the destructive force to the victim/s. Yet, too often, perpetrators of domestic or sexual violence are not prevented from owning firearms and are not adequately treated for their mental health problems.

The second amendment to the US Constitution is usually quoted only in part, only about the right to keep and bear arms not being infringed. If one reads the whole amendment and looks at the historical context, it is clear that the intent of the framers had to do with militias, not an absolute individual right. In July of 2016, I had a guest viewpoint on gun control published in the local paper; you can read it here. I think it can help to consider other military arms at this point. Do you think the second amendment gives individuals the right to own a rocket-propelled grenade launcher or a nuclear missile? Those are “arms,” as well. Should a military assault rifle be considered differently?

…which leads to my next point. We need to look at what kind of guns and accessories are available for sale to the general public. Fully automatic weapons are banned, so why is it legal to sell bump stocks that make semi-automatics behave like fully automatic weapons? Hunting for game is an old and time-honored tradition and most people use hunting rifles for this purpose. Even for the minority of hunters who use assault-type weapons, it seems that high-capacity magazines are not necessary. If you need thirty bullets to take down your prey, you are not skilled enough be hunting. I think that weapons designed for military use should not be in the hands of civilians and hope that Congress will again consider an assault weapons ban.

There should be public health research about guns and gun violence. Federal funding for this kind of research has been highly restricted due to the gun lobby’s leverage with members of Congress. Sadly, the presence of a gun in a household increases the risk that someone in the household will die or be injured with a gun. There are many heart-breaking instances of children inadvertently killing a sibling or friend after finding and playing with a gun in their home. Most people do not know that the majority of gun fatalities in the United States are suicides. Obviously, this ties into the mental health topic as well, but I don’t think that people who buy a gun for protection realize that owning a gun increases the chances that someone in the household will be injured or killed by a gun instead of protecting against that. People need all of these public health facts to inform their decisions and viewpoints.

Today – and every day – are appropriate ones to discuss and work on issues surrounding gun violence. There is never a day when someone is not mourning death or injury by guns, whether through mass shootings or other crimes, accident, or suicide. This is not an insoluble problem; nearly every other country has managed to cut gun deaths to low levels per capita.

The United States can do it, too.

Let’s begin today.

Guest viewpoint on gun control

A guest viewpoint that I wrote has appeared in the Sunday edition of the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin. It is available here: http://www.pressconnects.com/story/opinion/2016/07/29/guest-viewpoint-gun-control/87703872/.  I will also copy the text at the end of this post because there is a paywall after a certain number of free articles per month.

I did not write the headline. I am not going to read comments, which, thankfully appear on a separate page on the web. I am sure some of them will be nasty; there are even a few people from my facktivist days who make it a point not agree with me about anything, including if I write that grass is green.

Regular readers here at Top of JC’s Mind will not be surprised at the content.
*****
Congress Should Act on Gun Control

On June 15, Sen. Christopher Murphy, of Connecticut, took to the Senate floor to lead a 15-hour marathon talk on the need for the Senate to vote on gun control measures.

While some amendment votes were held the following week, none passed; currently under consideration is a bipartisan bill, authored by Sen. Susan Collins, of Maine, on preventing those on the no-fly and selectees lists from buying guns.

On June 22, the Democrats of the House of Representatives, led by Reps. Katherine Clark, of Massachusetts, and John Lewis, of Georgia, held a sit-in with the goal of bringing gun violence prevention legislation to a vote in the House. During the 25-hour sit-in, many members told stories from their districts of those affected by gun violence; some shared personal stories, as well. Many held signs with the names of those killed by guns as they gathered on the House floor.

Speaker Paul Ryan adjourned the House early for the Independence Day break rather than hold a vote.

Many polls show that the vast majority of Americans — and of American gunowners — favor legislation to keep potential terrorists, domestic abusers, those whose mental illness predisposes them to violence, and criminals from obtaining guns. Many also oppose selling military-style weapons and ammunition clips to the public. Yet, Congress has not acted.

Some say that enacting any gun control measure violates the Second Amendment, but it does not. The Second Amendment was enacted at a time when there was no standing army; it clearly labels the context by beginning with “A well-regulated militia … .” The courts recognize this.

The Supreme Court recently upheld a federal law keeping domestic abusers from owning firearms. The ban against owning fully automatic weapons has stood for decades. No one expects to have a private anti-aircraft battery or missile silo in the backyard.

None of our freedoms is absolute. The right to free speech and freedom of the press are not license to libel or slander. The free exercise of religion does not permit human sacrifice or physical assault.

When the House reconvenes, the Democrats plan to continue their efforts to pass gun control measures. I call on my representative, Richard Hanna, to speak on the floor in remembrance of the victims of gun violence in our district, especially those who died or were injured in the American Civic Association shooting. Perhaps the fact that he is retiring will give him courage to break with the Republican leadership and vote to protect the safety of the public in accord with the will of the people, acting as a final legacy to his career as a public servant.

Our most fundamental right is the right to life. No perceived right to bear arms should trump another person’s right to live.

Joanne Corey, of Vestal, is a member of the Catholic Peace Community of the Southern Tier.

Update: While on the perssconnects website there is a photo of guns accompanying my piece, in the print edition there is a photo of Paul Ryan waving the Constitution at a press conference on why the Republicans oppose voting on gun measures. I would not have chosen either of those. A photo of the House sit-in or of Rep. Lewis would have been more appropriate to the content of the piece.

Sit-in and recess

Some of my friends outside the US may be wondering what happened with the sit-in by the Democratic members of the House of Representatives, trying to force a vote on gun control legislation.

The sit-in continued for 24 hours. Overnight, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and the Republicans appeared on three separate occasions to call the House into session and hold votes on unrelated issues. The Democrats voted but still held the floor.

At the end of the third occasion, Speaker Ryan gaveled the House into recess for the Independence Day observance, which was not supposed to begin for another week.

The Democrats who were sitting in and their supporters, who followed the sit-in through social media because Congress’s cameras only run during session, some of whom gathered outside the Capitol building in support, had been asking that there be no recess until a vote on gun issues was held.

Instead, the Republicans chose to leave town early.

The Democrats vow that when the recess is over, they will renew their efforts to bring gun legislation to a vote. It’s possible another sit-in will be involved.

If the Senate votes for a bipartisan bill that grew out of Senator Murphy’s action there last week, there will be additional pressure on the House to vote, too.

Regardless of the next steps, the sit-in itself was a powerful stand on principle. The leadership of Rep. John Lewis, one of the few remaining national activists from the civil rights battles of the 1960’s, was inspiring, as was the witness of Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, who approached Rep. Lewis about taking action on this issue.

There were many powerful speeches from House members. Some spoke of shooting victims from their states or districts. Some related much more personal stories. Rep. Marcia Fudge spoke of losing her only brother to gun violence. Rep. Debbie Dingell spoke of enduring an abusive childhood, which involved being threatened with a gun. Part of her speech appears in the middle of this video, which itself summarizes the sit-in.

One particularly evocative moment was when the Democrats sang “We Shall Overcome” – familiar as an anthem of the civil rights era – while holding up signs bearing the names of victims of gun violence.

The representative from my district is a Republican who is retiring at the end of his term. When the recess is over, I would like him to speak on the floor of the House about the victims of the American Civic Association shooting, which occurred in his district, and to vote for the common sense gun laws that the vast majority of American voters support.

Perhaps the fact that he does not have to face re-election will give him the courage to work in a bipartisan way to pass legislation that our country desperately needs for our safety and security.

We can hope.

The House’s Turn

Following up on Senator Murphy’s almost 15-hour Senate marathon. There were four amendments on various aspects of gun control in the Senate on Monday, all of which failed. There is a bipartisan group of Senators trying to craft something that might pass.

Today, the House of Representatives is having an old-fashioned sit-in to force a vote in the House, vowing that they will not go on a planned break next week unless there is a vote on gun issues. Some Democratic senators have come over to support the House members.

It is great that Rep. John Lewis is leading the sit-in. A veteran of many civil rights sit-ins and protests, he is the perfect voice to lead this action.

Senator Chris Murphy stands up

I wrote a post in the hours after the mass killing at Pulse in Orlando, predicting that the US Congress would do nothing, even in the face of so many deaths at the hands of a single person with an assault weapon.

I am proud to report that I was wrong.

First, some Democratic members of the House walked out on the symbolic moment of silence in protest against inaction.

On Wednesday, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut took the floor at 11:21 AM and began speaking against the lack of debate and action on gun issues from Congress, intending to hold the floor until there was a promise to bring legislation to the Senate for debate and vote.

Senator Murphy lives near Newtown, Connecticut, site of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. He had been a member of the House from an adjoining district and was newly elected as Senator at the time of the shooting. He has been in close contact with the families of the Sandy Hook victims and has long advocated for tighter gun laws and better mental health care.

In order to hold the floor, he was not allowed to leave the chamber or even to sit.  There also needed to be continual talking. To help him, over thirty other Senators, mostly other Democrats but a couple of Republicans also, came to the floor to ask extended questions so that Senator Murphy could rest his voice.

Remarkably, Senator Murphy held the floor for almost fifteen hours, until in the early hours of Thursday, word came that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would schedule votes on four amendments regarding gun purchases next week.

I urge you to watch how Senator Murphy ended his marathon speech. I pray that his words will strike to the hearts of the senators so that they will vote to enact some new protections against gun violence, which is such a plague for us here in the United States.

There is a lot of work to be done. The American people are overwhelmingly in favor of restricting access to military-grade weapons and of ensuring that violent, unstable, or hate-filled people do not get their hands on guns and shoot people.

The President has been advocating on these issues for years.

Congress, listen to Senator Murphy, the President, voters, and especially the families of victims, and act.

Accolades for Anne Harding Woodworth

I am thrilled to spread the news that Anne Harding Woodworth has been chosen as the 2015-16 COG Award winner for Poetry by judge A. Van Johnson. The poems are from her soon-to-be-published chapbook The Last Gun.  You can read more about Anne and four of her poems here:  http://www.cogzine.com/#!anne-harding-woodworth/p81np

I met Anne when the Smith College Alumnae Chorus toured in Sicily in 2011. She is such a warm and welcoming person! When I later turned to poetry, she very graciously encouraged me and gave me advice. She is one of my poetry fairy-godmothers!

Congratulations, Anne!