(The Root) — America the beautiful, with all its celebration of democratic freedoms, has become a place where children are gunned down in their first-grade classrooms, and teenagers are killed walking home with Skittles and iced tea.
The latest blight on the nation's social consciousness is a massacre of unconscionable proportion: A lone gunman, identified as 20-year-old Adam Lanza, entered a Connecticut elementary school last week and used a semi-automatic rifle to unleash carnage by killing 20 children, all age 6 or 7, and six adults — schoolteachers and staff. Lanza had killed his own mother in her home, reportedly shooting her in the face, before traveling to the school.
This follows a series of similar tragedies: from the 2010 shooting outside a Safeway in Tuscon, Ariz., to the Dark Knight movie theater killings in Colorado, the massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin — and eerily familiar stories in Oregon, Washington and California.
The common denominator? Guns.
The recent shootings in Newtown, Conn., have prompted heated conversation about America's firearms obsession. The country seems to have a love affair with guns — and it is the most vulnerable among us who all too often pay the price.
Sybrina Fulton, mother of slain teenager Trayvon Martin — whose death at the hands of unofficial neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman caused a national uproar — spoke exclusively to The Root following the Newtown school massacre. "I feel bad for the families of these little boys and girls," she said. "The parents have a long road of healing ahead."
A report by the Children's Defense Fund found that there were 173 firearm-related deaths of preschool-age children between 2008 and 2009. That number was nearly twice the 89 deaths of law-enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. Likewise, the total number of children and teenagers killed by gun violence that year exceeded the number of military personnel who died in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Of the world's 23 wealthiest countries, the United States accounts for 80 percent of all gun-related deaths and 87 percent of all gun deaths for children under 15.
And this is not new to many of us, since gun violence has wreaked havoc on black and brown communities for decades — a phenomenon that has become so normalized that its status quo is hardly challenged. Though guns are colorblind, African-American teenagers are eight times more likely than white teenagers to die from gun violence. This year has seen a record 436 homicides in Chicago alone (as of October) — largely due to gang-related violence. But Trayvon Martin's death, which captured the nation in February, highlighted the all-too-common reports of innocent, unarmed African-American youths being profiled and killed.
The Children's Defense Fund found that African-American children and teens represented 45 percent of all gun deaths in their age group in 2008 and 2009, despite representing only 15 percent of the U.S. children's population. And the November shooting of Jordan Russell Davis, another African-American teen — who, like Trayvon, was unarmed and by many accounts a "good kid" — immediately sparked debate over Florida's controversial "Stand your ground" laws, racial disparities in gun deaths, the distortion of Second Amendment interpretations and a growing culture of unbridled gun usage.
These debates often last one news cycle before being sidelined by coverage of the latest political controversy or asinine commentary of Kardashian proportions.
Political paralysis and a seemingly immutable NRA lobby have led elected officials to choose apathy over action. Empty rhetoric continues, as 40 percent of all guns purchased legally in this country are sold without any background check whatsoever. Gun-show loopholes and lack of regulations mean that high-capacity magazines originally intended for warfare are now in the hands of civilians — some of whom may suffer from mental illness. But politicians do nothing.
Trayvon Martin's mother told us it's time for immediate action.
"Guns don't shoot themselves. The common denominator in all these [mass shooting] tragedies, including the death of my son, is a gun and bad intent," Fulton said. "I think gun control is necessary. And we need it now."
Benjamin Crump, the Martin family attorney, agreed. "I think Americans are adopting a dangerous notion of 'shoot first,' and lax guns laws only serve to exacerbate that notion," he told The Root. "We must make our politicians accountable."
Lucia McBath, mother of slain teenager Jordan Davis, has also become a reluctant spokesperson for stricter gun control measures. In an interview with MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, McBath said, "We're not saying that you don't have a right to bear arms, but there needs to be accountability. There needs to be responsibility. It's not a black-white issue. It's a nation issue. People are operating in fear."
Although President Obama has expressed support for an assault-weapons ban — a measure that was initially instituted under President Bill Clinton but allowed to expire under President George W. Bush — he has done little to get it done since taking office. Perhaps this is due to the incredible obstruction President Obama faced from Republicans in general, but after the violent execution of innocent children at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School, perhaps America's gun control debate has finally reached a point of critical mass — one that neither political party will be allowed to ignore.
Since the Newtown tragedy, veteran Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have announced plans to introduce gun control legislation, with measures to outlaw high-capacity magazines. Yet it remains to be seen if conservatives in both houses of Congress will join to support reasonable measures that could save lives.
"Are we prepared to say that such violence visited upon our children, year after year after year, is somehow the price of our freedom?" asked President Obama of a grieving Newtown audience during a Sunday memorial service.
The answer, I pray, is a resounding no.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.