On February 14, 2018, one year ago, a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing seventeen students and staff members and injuring seventeen others. This tragedy marred the Parkland community irreversibly and sent shockwaves throughout the country, already deep in the throws of a dissentious gun law debate.
America’s painful upsurge in gun violence has claimed hundreds of lives and in turn left gaping voids in its wake across communities of every economic background, religion, and ethnicity. From 2000-2014 alone, the U.S. saw 133 mass shootings, the most of any country in the world. To illustrate just how disproportionately this issue affects America in comparison to the rest of the world, the country with the second highest instances of mass shootings during the same 14 year time period, Germany, had 6 mass shootings. In other words, the U.S. count for mass shootings is a staggering twenty-two times that of the distant second country.
So, what is going on America?
When considering the complex factors that contribute to our nation’s increased gun violence rate, it’s hard to ignore how accessible guns are in the majority of the U.S. in comparison to other developed countries. That guns are too precariously accessible is one of the most universally shared sentiments by the spectrum of advocates across the country calling for a shift in policy in light of these attacks. Until now, most of the U.S. has failed to provide simple, common sense measures other developed countries have in place. This includes requiring a license to purchase guns, registration of purchased firearms, providing a reason for purchase, safety training and testing, and requiring safe gun storage.
“I think some of the causes [of the U.S.’s high gun violence rate] are the ways that our laws don’t necessarily address the root causes of gun violence. It seems like they attempt to address the aftermath of situations which often require a deeper analysis of issues like resources for people who suffer from mental illness, prevention programs, and a host of others,” points out Walter Thompson-Hernandez, a multimedia journalist for the New York Times taking a deep dive into cultural intersections in America.
This lack of policy change, coupled with a fever pitch in fear-mongering in today’s public discourse targeted toward minority racial groups is also sowing a heightened opportunity for racially motivated attacks against minorities in America. This growing phenomenon has manifested attacks on Synagogues, Protestant Churches, and other communities of color in the past six months alone.
“We both believe that easy access to guns and a propensity towards fear mongering and hate speech in politics is what is causing the alarmingly high rate of gun violence in the United States,” explain Dolores Huerta and Juana Chavez, labor leaders and civil rights activists who have seen this phenomenon before during their historic trajectory. “Three of our United Farm Workers strikers were shot down by guns in cold blood for having the audacity to take nonviolent action to demand better wages and safe working conditions,” solemnly recounts Huerta, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association alongside César Chávez, penning the now immortal phrase “Si Se Puede”.
Of other contributing, diverse, and complex root causes for heightened gun violence rates in America, Emmanuel Ortega, Ph.D. in Colonial Iberoamerican art history, offers a sociopolitical insight into the effect of another major force at play in this national debate.
“In the states, something has happened where we ‘shop therefore we are,’ ‘we own therefore we are’ and if we can learn something from the issue of gun control that has affected this country for centuries, is that as americans ‘we ignore, we shop, and we own, therefore we are.’ As long as we identify ourselves as a society based on material values, gun control laws may never change,” concludes Ortega.
This perspective sheds light on the special interests at play in politics which feed into our consumption culture. Consumer identity, group identity, and materialism have been so deeply and systematically embedded in our national psyche that we often fail to realize this identity programming is even taking place. By signaling group identifiers and solidifying us vs them, insider vs outsider, ingroup vs outgroup frameworks on issues such as socio-economic dynamics in America, ethnicity, and political identity, we wear down cognitive pliability on an issue on the edge of splintering America.
However, much more than a statistical narrative, as stark and astonishing as the figures are, and much more than a political debate, as divided as this country is on the issue, our country’s painful intimacy and familiarity with gun violence is a human story. More than numbers, headlines, or politicized talking points, each life lost to these horrific tragedies represents unlived futures, empty seats in classrooms, unfilled church pews, untaken first steps, unspoken vows, and hollowness in the place there once was human life. We must not lose the humanity in this conversation. These are the true consequences of these horrendous attacks on our communities, and the place we operate from in the face of these attacks must be receptive, compassionate, and representative of that.
“As a public elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, I was heartbroken when one of my eight-year-old students came into class sleepless and traumatized because they had witnessed a shooting on their block the night before,” shares Juana Chávez, who not only stands alongside Dolores Huerta in the picketlines as her fellow activist, but as her daughter. The narrative of the toll violence takes on young people plays out again and again in our country. It is a cycle that many, including Chávez, are fighting to break.
The advocacy for accountability in Washington we see today is birthed out of necessity, out of indignant resistance to preventable assaults on the vulnerable and the voiceless. Communities of color and minorities are disproportionately at risk of and affected by gun violence, too often becoming targets of hate crimes, dangerous racist stereotypes, and bigotry. Our communities are bleeding in real time and it’s time to take action.
Perhaps few can say they know the meaning of action like Huerta, who at 88 years of age is still canvassing with The Dolores Huerta Foundation door to door registering and informing voters.
Advocacy as a vehicle for healing and hope is something Huerta has seen yield tangible change in her lifelong endeavor for civil rights, and something that has returned agency to communities of color who have been dimmed by the hopelessness of loss.
This spirit of advocacy is alive and strong today, as exemplified by the survivors of the Parkland shooting. Their ability to organize and transform their pain into advocacy in the form of the #MarchForOurLives movement tells elected officials, “We call B.S.” on the notion that more can’t be done to prevent this senseless loss of lives. More than a fleeting trending Twitter topic, #MarchForOurLives has persisted with activists like Emma Rodriguez and Edna Chavez touring the country activating youth everywhere through national marches and peaceful yet harrowing demonstrations organized by students across the country.
As we face so much uncertainty on this issue, one thing seems certain. The march towards an America free of gun violence is intergenerational and crosses culture and economic lines, for the audacity to fight for a free and safe America transcends all barriers.
Photo by: Alex Edleman/AFP/Getty Images
Note: All guest blogs are opinions and beliefs of the writer and not the organizations.