I wake up at 4 a.m. With my teenage son fast asleep in his bed, I tiptoe downstairs to put candy hearts in his Nikes and coat pockets, an annual Valentine’s Day tradition in our house. My two who are away at college wake up to red emoji hearts and virtual hugs and kisses. Waiting eagerly for their return texts, I count the hearts and XO’s they send back. Feeling at peace. And then I turn on CNN.
This Valentine’s Day was the first anniversary of the mass shooting at Margery Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. I brace myself for a day of memorials about children murdered in their classrooms with teachers and staff shot dead trying to protect them. Flashback to Columbine twenty years earlier in 1999 and Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 as 20 first-graders lay bleeding to death on their classroom floor among crayons and picture books.
Something has changed since Columbine. The Parkland kids have channeled their trauma, taking to the streets and to social media with fierce advocacy and grassroots organizing, supported by grief-stricken parents demanding sanity in how guns are handled in America. One month after the massacre that changed their lives forever, they waged the largest mass demonstration for gun safety ever in Washington, DC. I was a leader in the second largest gun safety rally in Washington, the Million Mom March that took place twenty years ago after Columbine. We had email and flip-phones as organizing tools, no social media. The term “going viral” didn’t exist.
This new generation, having grown up in a post-Columbine world of active shooter drills, are correctly laser-focused on the ballot box. Last summer, they launched a “Road to Change” bus tour stopping in cities across the country to educate youth about curbing gun violence. They registered thousands of new voters, and in the November 2018 election, we saw an uptick in voter turnout among 18-24 year olds.
In this day and age, members of Congress not doing everything possible to prevent gun deaths are being grossly negligent. The sad fact is, Republican Party leadership is bought out by gun lobby money. Unless that changes, Democratic majorities are needed in both the House and Senate for gun safety legislation to ever be moved. This includes any attempts to more safely control distribution of weapons, their firepower, and expectations for safe storage among legal gun owners.
I have served on the Pennsbury School Board for five years. I support responsible gun ownership, and I am not opposed to hunting, but I am opposed to our children being hunted, especially while they are sitting in school. Though necessary, active shooter drills and preparations for lock-downs are heightening anxieties in our children. I don’t believe the answer is turning our schools into armed fortresses with metal detectors and bulletproofing everything from windows to backpacks. I oppose arming our teachers. What I do support is substantive debate among our elected leaders followed by improved and sensible national laws that will ultimately save lives.
A recent image of Florida middle-schoolers sitting on the floor in a moment of silence for Parkland, heads hung low, haunts me. The only ones who should be hanging their heads are our elected officials in Washington, specifically Republican leadership in Congress and our current president. The Margery Stoneman Douglas students have it correct. They know deep in their guts something we all must wholeheartedly embrace once and for all: the single most powerful bullet is the ballot.
Debbie Wachspress, from Yardley, is a Pennsbury School Director (Region 1) and the co-founder of Lower Bucks Indivisible