(Special to The Root) — As I sat and listened to the legendary Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) at the Leadership Conference's annual Hubert H. Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award Dinner in May, I was struck by a question he posed: "What have we come to when we utilize public policy to inflict pain on another human being?" His inquiry struck a chord in my heart and stirred a desire to be even more aware of the role that potential laws might have in harming others. Frank made it clear that the role of a good legislator should also be the easing of pain for humankind.
After the sorrow and fallout from the massacre in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, I must pose the question: "What have we come to when we do not utilize public policy to prevent pain from being inflicted on another human being?" The cynicism in the policymaking process too frequently prevents (or inhibits) our ability to do good for goodness' sake.
On the topic of gun control, some individuals on the right believe that the folks on the left are fearmongering to abruptly pass gun control legislation, while some people on the left blame the Republican-led House for not acting soon enough to prevent further gun violence.
Since Friday, citizens united (not the Supreme Court case — literally, Americans came together) to take action the best way they knew how: by signing a petition through the White House's "We the People" online petition system, which now has more than 197,000 signatures. The signers, American citizens, are demanding far more than a conversation — they are demanding a solution.
Our system is broken, and the people are petitioning government to consider a fix before we suffer any additional consequences. Context makes a world of difference, so let's maintain it. The U.S. has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world — an average of 88 per 100 people, according to a 2007 Small Arms Survey. And while the Second Amendment may afford us the right to bear arms, it does not afford us the right to take lives — certainly not by any means and for any reason necessary.
In the past four years, we have mourned too many lives lost; we have comforted too many parents and siblings and friends; and we have debated gun laws, the Second Amendment, state-based "Stand your ground" laws and the power of the National Rifle Association lobby. But we have yet to devise real, tangible solutions for this American crisis.
According to David Hemenway, a public health specialist at Harvard University, children ages 5 to 14 in America are 13 times as likely to be murdered with guns as are children in other industrialized countries. We must work within and through the political process to prevent all further gun violence. The reasonable ones among us know that guns are far too accessible and that we would be well-positioned to resolve some of the gun violence by implementing a simple background check, including a mental-health exam. I cannot tell you that the latter would have prevented the Newtown tragedy, because the killer stole his mother's weapons.
The suicides of two NFL players — Jovan Belcher (who also killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins) and Junior Seau — have encouraged us to have family-room conversations about the need to address not only gun control and gun violence but also mental illness, which may be largely responsible for these tragedies. However, the deaths of so many others — particularly those of young black people in Chicago — have gone unnoticed. That crisis must also be addressed.
Sure, the road toward reform of the seemingly sacred right to bear arms is difficult, and the complexities of finding a solution lead us to perpetual avoidance. Nevertheless, reasonable people understand that America must address this nightmare before another person loses a child, parent, sibling or other loved one. We have a gun control crisis compounded by severe mental-health issues, which are literally stealing the lives and futures of the assailants and their victims.
While disaster should not always drive legislation and policymaking, there certainly comes a time when disaster must enable or encourage Americans to take a stand and resoundingly say, "No more!" And after we take a stand, we must take action. It is time for America to have a very serious review of our gun control laws and gain a greater understanding about the challenges surrounding mental illness.
Many of our nation's legislators have a deep, abiding commitment to effect change through the legislative process. In so many instances, their commitment comes from their passions, their pain or a combination of both. I think all of America wishes that we had addressed the issues enabling yet another disaster, a massacre, before it happened. However, we did not. Let's not have another "Woulda, coulda, shoulda" moment, because the cost of another life is far too high a price to pay.
As President Obama said last Sunday night: "We're not doing enough, and we will have to change." Choking up and shedding tears while reading our president's remarks and viewing the pictures of the fallen children, I pray that America will be moved to address the nation's societal ills far before disaster strikes yet again.
Angela Rye, an attorney and political strategist, is a co-founder of IMPACT and the executive director and general counsel for the Congressional Black Caucus. She has been featured in The Root 100, MSNBC's "BLTWY Power List: 35 Under 35 Who Changed DC" and the Washington Post's "Who Runs Gov." Follow her on Twitter.
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