In an intimate setting of a small theater in Port Washington, Long Island, five women gathered on stage to tell their story: a mother whose college sophomore was murdered by a suicidal 21-year old , on an Arizona campus, jilted by her best friend; a mother whose 14-year old was gunned down in Brooklyn on his way home from a party, his killer never found and brought to justice; a daughter whose mother was the Sandy Hook principal who confronted the deranged gunman who killed 20 6 and 7 year olds and four other educators in a matter of minutes; a woman who buried a nephew and her five-year old granddaughter to gun violence; a mother whose daughter was killed in the Aurora movie theater who now faces $203,000 in legal fees after she attempted to sue the online seller of 4,000 rounds of military-grade ammunition. As painful as it is, they all became outspoken activists, retelling their tragedy. Two of them held in their laps photos of their lost loved ones. There was a box of Kleenex thoughtfully placed on the stage.
In the middle of the stage was Hillary Clinton, who has made gun violence prevention a centerpiece of her campaign, as much as women’s reproductive freedom and all the rest of economic and social justice and security issues that are of key concern to women– women’s issues, it turns out, are all the issues that affect families. But in the matter of gun violence prevention, Clinton stands apart from all the other candidates seeking the highest office in the land, including her Democratic opponent, Bernie Sanders.
Congressman Steve Israel, who hosted the event, raised the alarm: Even here, in what is known as the Gold Coast, even here we are exposed to gun violence. “Everyone knows someone,” he said: a Great Neck mother, Lois Shaffer, who lost her daughter, when she walked in on two teens burglarizing her home and was shot with a gun they had stolen from another house. Former Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy who became a gun control activist after her husband was murdered and her son gravely injured on the Long Island Railroad, and who went to Congress out of frustration.
Congressman Israel knows the frustration well – he sits on the appropriations committee which each year attaches a rider to a bill that prohibits the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from collecting data on gun violence – data that might result in safer guns, like gun locks or smart technology, which refused to pass a law to prevent a someone who is on the No Fly List on suspicion of being a terrorist, from buying a gun, and which has refused to pass legislation closing loopholes, used by 40% of gun buyers, to the background checks that otherwise have prevented 2 million gun purchases.
The result has been an epidemic of gun violence – massacres every couple of weeks that no longer shock for their cruelty and the tragedy they inflict.
But it isn’t as if there is nothing to be done to stem the violence. It’s that there has been a lack of will – and courage.
“Gun Violence is a critical issue in this campaign, and there is a critical contrast,” Israel said. “Hillary Clinton supports the Brady Bill; her opponent voted against it 5 times. She believes gun manufacturers should not have legal protection; her opponent voted to give legal protection 2 times. She consistently stood up for families, against the gun lobby and that’s what need in White House…I believe we need a president who will stand up to those house republicans and get them to put protection of our families ahead of gun lobby.”
“On average 90 a day die from gun violence, 33,000 a year,” Hillary Clinton said. “A significant majority of American citizens and gun owners want to see commonsense gun safety measures passed. What stands in the way is the most powerful lobby in Washington – there are other powerful lobbies, don’t mistake that – but if you take all of them, from Wall Street to drug companies to Big Oil, none is as powerful and intimidating as the Gun Lobby, because what they do is just make it clear to anyone who stands against them in public life – at any level, from the county and city level to the federal level – that they will pay a price, the object of a tremendous barrage of advertising and online attacks. We can have commonsense gun laws, we did and can again.
“This issue has been a high priority for many years, in part because I have spent too many hours listening to and meeting with families who have lost a loved one to gun violence- as First Lady – going to Columbine high school in Colorado and time and time again, more than I care to count, I have looked into the eyes, held the hands of people who ask why, how can we let this happen.
“If anything killed 33,000 people a year, we would be mobilized. Cars used to kill 33,000, now we have seat belts, air bags. We do what can we do to save lives. Instead, the gun lobby has blocked every possible avenue…
“The Brady Bill prevented 2 million purchases –it was a tough legislative battle. When Sanders was in the House, he voted against Brady Bill 5 times. I was proud when my husband passed the Brady Bill – it has saved lives.
“And we have a very commonsense agenda- we want comprehensive background checks, close the gun show loophole, close the online loophole, close the Charleston loophole (another feature that Sanders voted for).”
The so-called Charleston loophole limits the number of days to three that the government has to conduct a background check before the dealer must sell the gun.
“Some background checks are quick and easy, some need information to be gathered. The killer in Charleston, a young man filled with racist hatred went to buy a gun. At the end of 3 days, the background check wasn’t completed but seller had to sell him the gun. Within 24 hours, they found he should have been prohibited. But he took the gun, went to Mother Emanuel Church. A Wednesday Bible study class was going on. He was welcomed in because the faithful people there were following their scripture. He was invited in to bible study and then murdered 9 people. Close that loophole.
“We also have to reverse the gift that was given to the gun lobby with the passage of a law that grants them special immunity from the general responsibility of showing reasonable care in making and selling products. That is the rule for every other business that makes every other thing and sells it in our country – a rule that is rooted in centuries of legal jurisdiction and cases. The thinking is you do have a duty to the general public not to be negligent, not to be reckless or irresponsible. I voted against it – then Senator Obama voted against, Sanders voted for it and to this day, has defended it repeatedly and persistently.
“When challenged on his gun stances, he frequently says I represent Vermont, a small rural state. We have no gun laws,” she said. “Most of the guns that are used in crimes and violence and killings in New York come from out of state – and the state with the highest per capita number of those guns that end up committing crimes in New York come from Vermont.“
[Sanders campaign took exception but the key to the statement that makes it factual is “guns per capita” rather than the number of guns, overall.]
“This is not about ‘I live in rural state, we don’t have these problems.’ It’s easy to cross borders – criminals, domestic abusers, traffickers, people who are dangerously mentally ill cross borders and sometimes to get the guns they use. This has to become a voting issue for those of us who want to save lives.
“Now we have laws that suppress the CDC from even doing research. What are they afraid of? Afraid that there are answers that we could implement [to make guns safer, like safety locks or Smart Guns.]
“I want you to help me – not just this campaign, but if I am so fortunate to be president, to make this the kind of issue it should be.”
Each of the women’s stories personified a different problem that contributes to the epidemic of gun violence: the failure to prevent people with mental health issues from acquiring guns, the easy access without any background check from online sellers of massive amounts of military-grade weapons and ammunition, the easy flow of gun trafficking, better tools like microstamping bullets, that could trace back a gun used in a crime to the perpetrator, so they can be prevented from harming anyone else.
Former Hempstead Town Councilmember Rita Kestenbaum’s daughter was a sophomore at the University of Arizona, Tempe. Her roommate’s boyfriend was treating her badly and she made it clear she should break up with him.
On Feb 18 2007 which should have been her daughter, Carol’s, 18th birthday, she was shot dead in the parking lot of the University of Arizona campus by the ex-boyfriend of her friend.
“One day, after drinking and drugging, took his 2 guns, 4 am after my daughter and best friend came back form birthday, he shot her in the head, shot Nicole in the stomach, and was on his way to shoot more of Carol’s friends, when he put a gun to his head and shot himself…
“The murderer was suicidal – called police, called his parents, had guns – one was his rite of passage when 13 – when 15 got his second, when 21, legal to carry in Arizona, send me my guns – she put them into the US mail (which is illegal) – mailed him his guns – and when he was calling people and telling them ‘I’m suicidal, I don’t feel right,’ nobody took away his guns. His mother said, ‘Should we take away your guns?; ‘No I’ll be okay.’ If she had, my daughter would be alive, her friend Carol would be alive. A lot of different stories about how people are killed by guns – I don’t care if you feel sorry, you offer prayers –that won’t make changes, your anger will. You feel for me…If this trend continues, more will be killed by guns than in car accidents.
“People are so worried about terrorism, but we have terrorism on our own soil – munitions manufacturers making terrorists of our own citizens. There is nothing to prevent the mentally ill, people on terror watch list, making our own citizens terrorists.”
Marie Delus lost her nephew to gun violence, and then lost her 5 year old granddaughter. “Enough is enough. This happens in my community every day, every hour…I’m Marine corps veteran from Desert Storm ..I had to carry an M16. I had to drill, I’m a sharpshooter. I believe in 2nd amendment. But we need gun safety regulations.”
Erica Smegielski’s mother was the Principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School. “For too many people, victims are nothing but a number,” she said. “When I say my mom was the principal killed at Sandy Hook, I don’t want them to think she was one of 26, but of her in her ridiculous book fairy costume, or dressed as an alien to make the kids smile – she was an amazing educator, the best mom. She did everything she could to improve the quality of life for everyone – I am going to do everything I can to make sure that going forward, all our elected officials, especially our future president, understand.”
It was just past midnight on June 27, 2012, when Natasha Christopher got a call that her 14-year old son had been shot. When she first saw him in intensive care in the hospital, the blood on the floor, she fainted.
“For 14 days, I watched him fight for life. The bullet lodged into back of head and pushed his tongue out of his mouth. For14 days as he laid there, I was pleading with God, take me, take me, if you save him I will die – that’s what any mother would do for her child – and then on July 10, 2012, the day that would have been his 15th birthday, he died. His case was never solved, no one was apprehended.
“When he died – high school kid, loved family, had hopes and dreams – wanted to be engineer, to go to college – angry because my son was only 14, he went to high school party – he should have made it home that night without somebody putting bullet – his case is still unsolved, no one apprehended.
“I decided to take the pain and anger I feel and fight for commonsense gun laws – we all are sitting here, doesn’t matter where you live, nowhere is safe – doesn’t matter how much money you have, nowhere is safe anymore. We all owe it to everyone on this panel to get up and do something – we all have the opportunity to make a difference, to sit back and do nothing is saying what is going on in this country is okay – refuse to do nothing, will continue to fight for my son, all my friends – I’m the best mother that I can be to two younger children.”
Sandy Phillips’ only daughter went to a movie with her best guy friend visiting her in Colorado. What story doesn’t often get told was that she had been in a shooting 6 weeks earlier. She was visiting her boyfriend in Toronto and went to the Eaton Center Mall. They were standing in line and she said wanted to go somewhere else. Three minutes later, gunfire erupted in the food court. Several were shot, 2 died.
“Jesse, a sports journalist finishing her last semester of college, wrote about the incident, saying ‘every second of every day is a gift.
“How little did she know that 6 weeks later, her life would be taken in another shooting – when the shooting erupted in that Colorado theater, the horror those people felt – look around this theater – that one larger, they were trapped, nothing they could do – the person who killed my daughter, killed 11 others and wounded 70- was at the trial every day – saw the wounds, heard the stories, met the first responders, heard and saw the autopsy reports – the weapon was an AK 47 – the favorite gun of mass murderers, those in their 20- used military grade ammo, green tipped to go through seats, walls, human flesh and bone – that particular bullet is designed to do the most harm to a human body it can do.
“My daughter was first shot in her thigh. It went through one leg into other. She couldn’t escape- the young man was a paramedic, started trying to stop bleeding – found out several weeks later – she had been shot 6 time s- sound in leg, 3 in stomach, once in clavicle, and a head wound. The head wound caused a 5 inch hole, blew out her brains, into the seats and over the young man.
“I tell you this because of what he was able to do with a click of mouse – order 4000 rounds of that type of ammo with a click. No background check, no license, no ID required. If he was able to do that, how many others with ill intent out there are doing the same and it’s perfectly legal?
“My husband and I were so astonished that this could happen in our country – we’re gun owners – we had believed the NRA. We filed suit against the online dealer – the first motion and the judge dismissed case and said we must pay $200,000 to the online company that sold the ammo – this is true – it was $264,000, but he was kind enough to reduce it to $203,000. We are left with that, and are declaring bankruptcy. There’s no way on God’s green earth we are giving that company one penny.
“So when this debate started, and there was someone talking about gun laws, gun violence – I made a call to Sanders – it did not go well – which is why I’m here today. Our future president, Madam President (cheers) has called for the repeal of PLACA and expanded background checks on every sale of every gun – takes each and every one of us – this is our issue – you are one step away from our story being your story and you do not want to walk in our shoes.”
Clinton thanked the women for being willing to tell their story “to get the rest of us to understand what’s at stake, to recognize the warning signs when someone says they want to harm themselves or others, there has to be intervention. We need to make it clear – not about responsible gun owners, never has been -= the overreaction of the gun lobby creates all the loopholes that people who shouldn’t have guns in first place take advantage of.
“Erica [whose mother was murdered at Sandy Hook] didn’t tell you the kind of blowback she has gotten – the other panelists too – for standing up against the organized reaction of the gun lobby.
“They are really putting themselves out there – insomuch as possible, they want to prevent more families from ever going through what they have gone through.
“We have to be able to trace those guns,” Clinton says to the woman whose son was killed. “We have to bring justice for your son.
“The Phillips story is such a clear example of why this immunity provision – which led to the dismissal of suit against online seller of ammo, and gave opening to NRA which had defended the suit on behalf of the online site – to once again intimidate – say to judge – this couple never should have brought this suit – we have a law that gives special immunity – online, off line – so impose attorney fees on them for trying to – not asking for money – their lawsuit was to get injunction – didn’t want a penny – just wanted to prevent seller from sending to anybody – so the NRA got the judge to impose more than $200,000 in legal fees. These are the real stories, the gaps in the law and behaviors that allow this to continue.
“There is a role for us. What NRA does so effectively is to get people so upset, anxious that any law will take their guns away – they get people wrote up – only way to stop this is to vote against anybody who wants to keep guns out of wrong hands – single issue voter they have been grooming, supporting all of these years.
“Most of us here care about a lot of issues- jobs, economy, education – lots of issues – but we have to care about this issue, and make it possible for the laws to be changed, enforced vigorously and try to turn the tide in this country so we get back to a more sensible, livable understanding that yes, we do have constitutional protections, but we started off wanting to protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness of others have as well,” Clinton said.
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