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Safe Gun Policy Doesn’t Have to Mean No Guns—Or No Safety

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On a recent weekend I was doing some fall cleaning when I uncovered my old T-shirt from the Million Mom March, which took place on Mother’s Day in 2000. I held up that shirt, with its pink and black logo, and remembered walking on the National Mall with my 5-year-old son on my shoulders, full of hope that a group of like-minded mothers and others could make some sense out of what felt like chaos with respect to guns. I believed that guns were bad, full stop. Why couldn’t everyone see that?

I am older now and in many ways more moderate, including my attitude toward gun ownership. Maybe my views began to soften when I visited my sister and her new husband and found a shotgun under the guest-room bed. Who, I wondered, keeps a shotgun under the bed?! Well, when you are a man like my brother-in-law, who is a lifelong hunter, a shotgun safely stored under the bed is no big deal. Guns are such an integral part of his life that when he walks the dog through the fields near their house, he takes his shotgun in case he spots a rabbit that might make a good stew. To my brother-in-law, a gun is a useful tool, just like his chain saw and rototiller and washing machine.

Further softening: I had never held a gun in my hands until my two older sons and I went clay-pigeon shooting on vacation this past summer. Perhaps the younger me would have taken a stand against clay-pigeon shooting–guns were bad! But the older me thought it sounded like fun, as long as we all wore protective glasses and noise-canceling headphones. As it turned out, clay-pigeon shooting was both a) lots of fun and b) something I can add to my very short list of talents.

Over the years, as my attitude softened, came horrifying gun tragedies that claimed dozens of lives at the hands of a small group of evil men. Tragedies we talk about using a sad shorthand: Virginia Tech. Aurora. Sandy Hook. Pulse. And now, Las Vegas. Maybe the city of Las Vegas looms so large in our cultural imagination that the massacre there won’t ever have a shorthand name. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. But what’s very bad indeed is how, instead of feeling compelled to march as I did in 2000, I now just feel a sense of … inevitability. With each new mass shooting, that feeling of futility gains ground. As my best friend said, “If Sandy Hook couldn’t change anything, nothing will.”

When you are a moderate person, one of your defining characteristics–if significant shortcomings–is that you expect people around you to be moderate too. Which may be why the strongest emotion I have felt since Oct. 1 is one of disbelief that the spokesperson for our country’s leader said now is not the time to talk policy but “to unite as a country.” Is anyone else tired of the suggestion that when disaster (whether natural or man-made) strikes, it just makes Americans stronger and more united? I’m not sure which United States our President is living in, but whichever one it is, I think I’m living in the other one. Given that addressing gun violence is one of the most politically divisive issues today, we need guidance on how to unite. Because frankly, if we knew how to do that, our population might be bigger by exactly 58.

I walked in the Million Mom March 17 years ago because I wanted to show my son that ordinary citizens have power, that together we can raise our voices and make this country better. I’m sad to say that I am having a hard time maintaining that belief. I also marched because I want my children, and all children, to be safe. As one of those nagging mothers who doesn’t care about embarrassing her kids in order to give them information that will keep them healthy, from time to time I text my older boys news articles like the one I sent last week about STDs being on the rise. Never mind that my boys don’t like discussing STDs with their mother–if I didn’t annoy them with information about how they can stay safe, how would they know I love them?

But when it comes to warning them about guns, I’m flummoxed. And so, to the politicians who are urging us to focus not on policy but on uniting: after you tell us how to do that, maybe you can help me keep kids alive. I’ve got a running list of places children should avoid so they don’t get shot: nightclubs, movie theaters, churches, college campuses, elementary schools and outdoor concerts. Anything I missed?

Van Ogtrop is the author of Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom

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