September 19, 2018

Guest Column: Sitting ducks: Are we powerless over gun violence?

By Kelly Hedglin Bowen

As Marjory Stoneman Douglas High was terrorized last Wednesday, I attended my fourth-grader’s chorus concert at Williston Central School. We were 150 students and parents tucked into the auditorium at the same moment 3,000 Parkland students sheltered in place, ran for their lives or were shot to death.

I live in a rural community. “It will never happen here,” we force ourselves to believe as we send our kids off to school. But with every incidence of gun violence, I feel the wave coming closer. When does the carnage reach us?

I read about the shooting on Twitter as my husband drove us home from the concert, our son half asleep in the backseat. The maternal urge to preserve my child’s sense of safety forced me to stay mum. After his bedtime, with the television volume low, I watched distraught Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie try to offer a coherent statement to his grieving community. What are the talking points for the unthinkable? As a member of our local school board, my job is to communicate to the community. Maybe that’s why I paid particular attention to Mr. Runcie’s remarks. What will I say when it happens to us?

Public schools are the catch-all for social services’ failings. Many students require more than academics. But with a lack of qualified counselors and limited funding, schools struggle to provide needed support to our students. Yes, address the national mental health care crisis, but acknowledge mental health is not killing our children. Guns are killing our children.

I listened to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, an ardent defender of the same Floridians that she failed to protect: “You will not be scammed by online fundraisers or overpriced funeral directors,” she said. “Your needs will be met … state-funded funerals …” I wondered if it is easier for her to clean up the aftermath rather than pass up the NRA money funneled to her campaign.

I’m glued to the news coverage and numb to the rising death toll. But aren’t all Americans? In 2012, after the Sandy Brook Elementary School shooting, where 20 fourth-graders and six teachers were gunned down, I — like most sane Americans — thought, ‘Finally! A mass shooting so heinous Congress will act.’ Though a majority of voters support gun control, the move to enact common sense gun policy met negative political backlash. The seismic political shift — recognizing gun violence as a public health pandemic — hasn’t happened. And body after body, voters grow weary waiting for our elected officials to respond.

I was trying to cobble together a conclusion for this article, attempting to rationalize the violence, when it occurred to me: It’s not the violence. What I’m struggling to understand is our government’s refusal to act. And I know the answer. Governments don’t act. People act.

Faced with what seems to be an unstoppable reality, I’ve been a sitting duck. Living in Vermont, the shooting hasn’t reached my school. I’m aware of escalating fatalities, but aside from my few donations, gun violence isn’t on my radar. I now realize the carnage is here. From West Paducah to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, American schoolyards are under attack.

The political posturing was immediate. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s response: “This is not the time to jump to some conclusion not knowing the full facts.” While in Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott stated, “We’re fortunate we’re one of the safest states in the country, and I believe our gun laws are balanced — they balance public safety with our rights.”

That was until a day later when 18-year-old Jack Sawyer was arrested in Rutland for allegedly planning a mass shooting at Fair Haven Union High School. By Friday, with the threat closer to home, Gov. Scott conceded that he’s now open to a discussion about gun control. Why does gun violence have to come to our doorstep for us to take action?

The time has come for public shaming. NRA-funded politicians and companies that continue to profit off the growing death toll must be called out. Empower the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence and rescind the Dickey Amendment. And, if our elected officials refuse to support sensible gun legislation, vote them out.

I am a fortunate mother, my son is alive. But I’m no longer a sitting duck, and I will not wait for the day after to act.

Kelly Hedglin Bowen is a writer, mom, activist, sailing instructor and member of the Champlain Valley School District Board. She lives in St. George.

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