Guns, Children, and Suits: that which does not belong

I would rather talk about guns and children than wear a suit. I do not like suits. Whenever I have to dress in anything fancier than casual, I become nervous because I know I am dressing for someone else’s eye. It sounds childish because it is, as an emotionally traumatic holdover from my super-awkward middle school days. I have gotten used to it over time, if only because it has become a daily professional requirement (and because people are too polite to voice their fashion critiques.) I suppose this is part of the appeal of pediatrics, where my little patients don’t care for the white coat or business attire anyways and I can let a goofy smile be the most memorable part of my appearance.

However, this means I feel even more uncomfortable wandering around the legislative district of Washington, D.C., where appearances and impressions seem to mean everything. To me, everyone seems immaculately dressed and my scuffed shoes and worn belt feel out of place among the polished lobbyist briefcases and horn-rimmed hipster eyewear. I feel like that awkward geek all over again, trying to measure up to the popular kids who now wear Hugo Boss instead of Adidas and lunch at a French bistro instead of the pizza parlor.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is trying to help me figure this out, here at the biannual Legislative Conference. There are all these advocates and representatives and staffers trying to teach me the rules of the government game: how to “frame” an issue, how to send clear messages, how to say things in a way that gets those with the authority to make decisions to listen. They also model for me the right way to wear a suit, but this still does not make me feel very comfortable. The sinful side of me feels jealous of their ease and expertise, and it becomes overly fixated on things like image and word choice and fundraising and the fear and love of power, things that make me feel like I am part of a massive popularity contest… one in which I feel sure to lose.

So I made some phone calls yesterday.

I called my friends from the city, people whom I have come to Washington to represent. All of them dedicate their work and lives to kids in the city; all of them live in the so-called inner city itself. I asked them to tell their stories, and here they are:

“Yesterday, I heard gunshots outside the office, the afterschool camp where the kids were coming.”

“This past week, a student… he came up to me excitedly and said, ‘I just saw a shooting! Down the street! People are running!’ I asked him if anyone was hurt, and he said he didn’t know. Then he went back to playing basketball, as if it was something normal, but I know it’s not… it shouldn’t be something that’s just normal. He’s ten years old.”

“I asked the kids to do a watercolor of things that they were afraid of. I didn’t tell them anything else, but they started to paint pictures of guns, and of blood spurting out… they’re in 1st to 5th grade.”

“How many of them have been affected by guns? I can’t think of someone who hasn’t had someone in the family or a friend get shot.”

“Two years ago, I was walking down the street and got robbed at gunpoint. I still get paranoid when walking down the street, and I grew up here.”

“We had a young mother, 19 years old with two kids. One day she picked them up from daycare and took them home… and found a dead body in the backyard, who had been shot. She hasn’t let her kids play in the street since, and it’s been years.”

“The person who taught me to read got shot. He was just sitting in his car…”

“Guns are just a part of these kids lives.”

“There was a 14 year old who used to come to camp; he went ahead and shot his friend over some fight over a girl. Now he’s in jail…”

“The kids are afraid to walk home from the bus, or the park, or out on the street because of guns.”

“One time I heard gunshots just around the corner… I was having to tell kids to get inside because someone’s been shooting a gun down the street. The older guys were standing outside… they’ve seen this play out hundreds of times.”

These stories came easily from people who were far too comfortable telling them. If there was any silence on the phone, it was because I was at a loss for words. And yet, without fail, as I stumbled for appropriate words, my friends would help me close such a casually horrific conversation with this question:

“Can I pray for you?”

I am still struck by this outpouring of grace that seemed so counterintuitive at first. To them, and to me, true power does not come from a gun or a sword or a pen or a suit. It comes from obedience to a simple series of commands: do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. If this means we lose our lives that we may find it, then we do so gladly. If it means we speak unpopular truth to overwhelming power, then our feet should only ask for the direction to go. If it means I wear a suit… well, I am wearing it now.

This is the message in my mind for the Senators we will be speaking to today. Join your pediatricians in advocating for our children, that they may be spared from the terrors we have permitted by our collective and willful negligence. Call your Senators and Representatives today to say that you support the message of pediatricians nationwide: that all children should have freedom from the fear of firearms. This is not in support of or opposition to any legislation; this is not an attempt to strip others of Constitutional rights. It is simply a call to let your elected officials know you care about gun safety, that you want firearms to stay out of hands that seek to harm. It only takes several minutes.

I am tired of waking up to gunfire. I am tired of watching my neighborhood live under its crushing terror. I am also tired of wearing suits.

Share this. Call someone. Remember us.

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Guns, Children, and Suits: that which does not belong