On Tuesday, Andy Ward and Alison Parker were buried. We failed them.
In the past few days, we have been left to make sense of their execution, which was broadcast on live television to an unsuspecting local Roanoke, Va. television news audience during an early-morning report. In the five days after Alison and Andy were murdered, more than 400 other Americans have died from gun violence. We failed them, too.
The Gun Violence Archive reports that at least 34,000 Americans have been killed by a gun so far this year, and The Washington Post confirms that the United States is averaging more than one mass shooting a day. We pride ourselves on “American exceptionalism,” but our exceptionalism in the area of gun violence is hardly anything to be proud of; the consequences are thousands of lost lives and broken families every year.
As a gun violence prevention advocate and organizer — and the daughter of a Sandy Hook Elementary School teacher and survivor — one of the most common sentiments I hear from would-be activists is adamant discouragement. “I lost all hope after the background checks bill failed in the Senate after Newtown,” or, “Nothing has changed since Sandy Hook. If nothing can change after 20 first-graders and six teachers are murdered in their classrooms, we will never fix this.”
I understand. Perhaps our individual and collective fatigue of shootings is not necessarily indicative of apathy. Perhaps it is the result of repeated yet removed trauma. Our communities are caught in a cycle of violence, and when we turn to our leaders for answers, we are told that this is how it has to be. No matter how removed we are from an act of gun violence, we also understand it could have been us or someone we love this time. That is traumatizing. Perhaps our “fatigue” is a mechanism of self-protection.
Politically, gun violence is a national epidemic, a wound that, because of our collective complicity, has been allowed to fester untreated at every level for almost 30 years. Culturally, it is ingrained in our larger history, and more recently, it has been exacerbated by right-wing extremism, which has especially flared during Obama’s term. It is also a uniquely American phenomenon, far more complicated than just the politics of gun reform laws. The sweeping systemic changes and political power shifts demanded after shootings will take decades to instill. That is the case with any reform movement. It requires organizing; it requires changing history; and in this case, our work will culminate in safer communities.
The failure of the background check law in Congress after Newtown ignited a newfound and unprecedented gun violence prevention movement. In truth, the gun lobby wants our reporters, talking heads and average citizens to think that nothing has changed. This myth trumpeted by the gun lobby as a major talking point projects a fatalistic view of gun reform, and it naively overlooks the courageous work of thousands of activists — old and new — who will do whatever it takes to rid our country of the scourge of gun violence.
We have, in fact, made change. Since Newtown, we have grown a grassroots movement of thousands in every state. Resolution 594, which expands background checks to all gun sales, was passed by popular vote last year in Washington state. In addition, multiple states have passed comprehensive gun reform packages, including California, Connecticut and Delaware. Louisiana and Wisconsin, and others now, have legislation that closes a loophole allowing domestic abusers and stalkers to purchase and possess firearms. At the same time, public and private entities have divested from the gun industry.
Politicians have been elected to public office even while blatantly opposing the gun lobby during their campaigns. Many young people are uniting and growing a more expansive network of next–generation leaders. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has helped to bring the issue of gun reform to the table as a serious platform issue in 2016. Even on our own campus, the newly formed student organization Georgetown Against Gun Violence (of which I’m proud to be a part) is poised to help lead advocacy and educational efforts on the Hilltop and beyond.
The fact that our victories have been incremental does not mean they have been insignificant. These harbingers of the future cannot be misinterpreted. Slowly but surely, we are going to win the fight for gun safety.
The generations before us put the gun lobby on a pedestal that, in turn, molded our policies to fit the gun industry’s agenda to sell more guns. They failed us. They failed Alison Parker and Adam Ward. They failed the 32 Americans who die from gun violence every day. Now, it’s up to us to put the interests of our own futures and families back on that pedestal.
Andy Parker, Alison’s father, reminisced that while partaking in their favorite hobby, kayaking, Alison would always say, “Never stop paddling. You just have to paddle through the rapids. You just have to paddle through.”
At this point, it’s not enough to feel bad for Alison and her family. We must pay our respects by heeding her command. We have to paddle through.
Sarah Clements is a sophomore in the College. She is the Vice President of Georgetown Against Gun Violence.
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