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.
Disarming law abiding citizens is not the answer. Criminals will find ways to get guns regardless of what laws are passed because criminals, by nature, do not obey laws.
It is not a matter of disarming law abiding citizens; it is a matter of decreasing gun violence from accidental, suicidal, or homicidal injury. It is easier to purchase a gun than to buy a vehicle, fill a prescription, build a house, or any number of other ordinary activities. Law abiding citizens do not have anything to fear from greater scrutiny; in fact, it is in their best interest to clear their name from being associated with the violence that does occur elsewhere, specifically on my street and in my neighborhood.
The opening statement of the Constitution says:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Note that to “insure domestic tranquility” precedes the need to “provide for the common defense.” Even so, the sheer prevalence of firearms in the United States today threatens both. In speaking with families and neighbors here in the city, none of them have said that possessing a firearm in the house would make them feel safer; the vast majority thinks that there are far too many guns available already.
To better ensure that those who do own firearms are those who have the capacity to act responsibly and without criminal intent, it is in the public’s best interest to make it more difficult for criminals to obtain guns, even by lawless means, as you have said. Our code of criminal law does not imagine that violence is absolutely preventable, but instead seeks to establish a civil structure that provides the maximal deterrent to crime with the least restrictive means to the public.
This means that, at the end of the day, the American public must decide what it believes is in the best interest of public safety. My argument is that the voices of those who are most threatened by gun violence have the least representation (children, especially in the inner city), and that their right to freedom from terror should not be treated lightly.
I can sum up my reply by saying, “Amen!” My neighborhood is still in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of a 19 year old this week. This young man was a freshman in college and had a bright future ahead of him. He shared Easter dinner with friends and my housemates and I this year. Just a few weeks ago a 15 year old was shot and killed a couple blocks away. How long, O Lord, how long? I know that for many of the teens in our neighborhood (Bronzeville/Southside of Chicago), gun violence is a norm in their lives. This grieves me and should grieve the church across the country. So I will continue to pray and strive to live out my prayers through my actions.
I am hopeful that God is raising up his people to respond to this epidemic of violence. In gathering with others who are living and intentionally serving in areas rife with violence, I am reminded that God has not forgotten. He has not forgotten his people and he has not forgotten the children who have lost their lives to violence.
Praying and standing with you from the Christian Community Health Fellowship conference in Atlanta this week.