Jess Phoenix: Time to talk about it


It was April 20, 1999. Sirens blared in the distance as I hurried along the broad sidewalk next to my high school’s administration building. I had just picked up my new track uniform, and I was rushing to my car. I didn’t want to be late for my first time competing in my new sport of pole vault.

The meet was at a rival school—Cherry Creek High—and I needed to arrive early to warm up. One of my friends from church youth group popped out of the admin building and jogged past me.

“There’s been a shooting at Columbine.”

The words dropped almost casually as he passed, so I assumed it must have been a senior playing a prank. It was probably a BB gun, I reasoned. On the road, I turned on the car stereo.

Emergency vehicles kept whizzing by in the opposite direction, but I still hadn’t associated them with Columbine.

The voice on the radio said that there appeared to be people injured in the shooting. Surprised, I continued to the track meet. I was poised on the pole vault runway, pole in hand, ready to take a practice vault when a girl sitting nearby with a radio shrieked.

“They say there are 50 people dead!”

I threw my pole down and dove for my gym bag. Somehow, I unearthed two quarters and bolted in search of a payphone.

My pager was silent, no messages from anyone. Over and over, I dialed my boyfriend’s home number, muscle memory mashing buttons my eyes weren’t seeing.

Every time the message machine clicked on, I slammed my fist down on the receiver, fished the quarters out of the change return and called again.

I knew where he was supposed to be: inside the heart of Columbine High School.

All I could do now was hope he made it out. The blackness in my stomach hardened and knotted, cold as ice. I learned what terror was that day, and how the weight of sorrow smothers and transforms a community in the days, weeks, and months after an unspeakable tragedy steals lives and destroys dreams.

Now, it’s 2018, and I’ve lived more than half of my life after the Columbine shootings. I was 17 then, and I’m 36 now. It boggles my mind that in the years after Columbine, school shootings have become so commonplace that there’s almost a script we expect the media, grieving families and lawmakers to follow.

One of our greatest failings as a country is the normalization of this very distinct, very abnormal brand of tragedy. The right of Americans to keep and bear arms originated in a starkly different time. The firearms of the day were single-shot and took time to reload. There is a reason that mass shooters today don’t use muskets for their rampages.

Militias were seen as the proper place for firearm use, and most modern gun owners aren’t part of well-organized militias whose major objective is defense against foreign invaders. So why, in this era of an epidemic of gun violence, are we still clinging to outdated notions of the role weapons should have in our society?

Money. That’s why.

The National Rifle Association has managed a spending coup that’s almost without comparison. They’ve peddled their product ferociously, with lobbying efforts that have wound their tentacles around a huge number of our nation’s top elected officials. With tens of millions spent to lobby politicians just in the most recent election cycle, the gun lobby is a powerful force working to make sure that anyone who wants to purchase a gun can do so.

I mentioned the word epidemic before, because mass shootings are just the tip of the gun violence iceberg.

Suicides and domestic violence account for more firearm deaths than mass shootings do annually, but they don’t receive nearly the press of mass shootings. As a scientist, I know that to fully understand a problem we need good, reliable data.

Since 1994, when the Republican-controlled Congress stripped gun research funding from the Centers for Disease Control, our nation’s top research organization has been unable to investigate the root causes of gun violence.

We can’t see the causes, and you can’t fix what you can’t see.

The types of firearms and modifications for weapons available today are surely part of the problem, as well. Military-style weapons are used routinely by mass shooters. As we saw in the Parkland shootings, a 19-year-old was able to legally purchase an AR-15, a gun with far more firepower than is necessary for simple personal protection or home security uses.

While gun advocates claim that restricting guns will never work, I counter with the need for data, and—more importantly—the need to actually try reforms.

We can no longer afford to be silent and allow the money-driven gun lobby to hold our country hostage. Currently, we have loopholes in our gun laws big enough to drive a truck through. Measures like universal background check laws, better regulating gun sales at gun shows, rejecting Concealed Carry Reciprocity, enacting mandatory nationwide 14-day waiting periods, restricting magazine capacities and banning center-fire, semi-automatic rifles would lay the groundwork for reducing gun deaths.

We must fund the CDC to study the effectiveness of these measures, and to uncover the root causes of gun violence.

From there, we can build solutions that will work. We also need to examine implementing gun licensing and insurance requirements for gun ownership, as well as required safety training courses.

Of course, we would need to ensure any required policies do not disproportionately impact the rights of people of color or members of lower-income communities to obtain legal firearms.

Owning a firearm is a right, but it is also a responsibility.

Unfortunately, the tens of thousands of people who abuse their gun ownership by killing and wounding innocent children and adults have pushed us to a point where we must make changes. Since 1999, more than 100,000 people have survived school shootings. Right now, there is a generation of young people who have grown up with active shooter drills and school lockdowns as their version of what is normal.

With every mass shooting, I see a televised interview with a community member, who exclaims the same line every time.

“I never thought it could happen here.”

Every time, I hear a voice inside me cry out, “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.” Our society has reached a saturation point with guns, and it’s only a matter of time before an individual’s life is affected by violence at the end of a gun.

That’s why now is the time to talk about gun violence. Now is the time to reject the gun lobby’s death dealing. Now is the time to elect leaders with courage and conviction to change our broken system.

Now is the time, because we are Columbine. We are Virginia Tech. We are Sandy Hook. We are Las Vegas. We are Parkland. We are better than this. We deserve better than this.

Jess Phoenix is a Democratic candidate for the 25th Congressional District seat.

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