This week, we spent time with Francine and David Wheeler, parents of 6-year-old Ben Wheeler, one of the 20 children and six educators shot and killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Francine and David moved from New York City to Newtown to raise a family somewhere safe. They could never have imagined that in that quiet place on a Friday morning, just days before Christmas, gunfire would take their younger son’s life.
The Wheelers’ courage and commitment deeply touched us. Since their son’s death, they have managed to cope with memory and hold together their lives — and the life of their surviving son, Nate — with uncommon grace. Along with other Newtown families, they lobbied the Connecticut state legislature — which now has the toughest gun law in America — and in Washington, they walked the halls of Capitol Hill, urging senators to vote yes for the amendment that would expand the use of background checks for people buying guns.
Although a majority favored the legislation, they fell six votes short of the 60 votes necessary for passage, but the Newtown families, friends and neighbors do not intend to quit. They are part of a growing nationwide movement committed to changing our gun culture. They call it Sandy Hook Promise. “America is in desperate need of a new path forward to address our epidemic of gun violence,” they write. And then comes the promise: “THIS TIME THERE WILL BE CHANGE.”
You want to believe with all your heart that this is one promise that will be kept. But arrayed against them are mighty forces, mountains of money, a corrupted political system, and habits deeply ingrained in the human psyche.
That Minnesota radio host who told the Newtown families “to go to hell” is hardly alone in placing his freedom to own weapons over a child’s right to live. The gun industry’s most conspicuous pitchman, Wayne LaPierre, is the walking embodiment of the sociopathic mentality, one radically devoid of empathy. His National Rifle Association spent $18.6 million on the 2012 elections and then at least $800,000 lobbying the federal government in just the first three months of this year — pushing back against those like Sandy Hook Promise who have been calling for change after the Newtown massacre.
But Gregg Lee Carter, the editor of the encyclopedia Guns in American Society, told the Center for Public Integrity:
“The issue is not so much how much the NRA gives any senator or member of the House, it’s how they can make their lives miserable. And how they make their lives miserable is they e-mail ’em, they call ’em, they fax ’em, they show up at meetings… They’re much more activist than the other side and that’s what really produces their gains.”
As the NRA holds its annual meeting in Houston this weekend (expected attendance: more than 70,000), you see their tracks everywhere. A kindred, pistol-packing spirit, the Arizona Citizens Defense League has been raffling off an AR-15 semi-automatic at their website’s online store, similar to the weapon Adam Lanza used at Sandy Hook Elementary School. They’ve taken it down from their site now — when we first saw the offer, there were only five tickets left, so maybe it’s sold out, but here’s what the offer looked like (including the Statue of Liberty brandishing a rifle, Rambo-style).
That same group cheered on Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer this week as she signed two pro-gun bills — one that prohibits local governments from keeping lists of people who have firearms — not them any of them were — and another that requires police to take guns that are voluntarily surrendered in buyback programs and instead of destroying them, sell them back to the public. That’s right: get them off the street and then get them back on the street as fast as you can. Perhaps they should install a drive-thru window at the precinct houses.
Granted, this is in Arizona, where the OK Corral is hallowed ground (reenactment daily at 2 p.m.) and there’s even a TV station in Tucson with the call letters K-GUN, but the mindset pervades across the country, even as there have been eight school shootings since Newtown and more than 3,800 gun deaths. The killing field that is America never calls a truce. In Kentucky this week, a 2-year-old girl was accidentally shot and killed by her 5-year-old brother who was playing with a rifle he had received as a gift. In Alabama, a stray bullet fired nearby killed a 24-year-old mother holding her 10-day-old baby in her arms. She fell onto a couch by the door still clutching her child.
Hold that image in your head and in your heart, so emblematic of a country that has taken leave of its senses. Remember all the dead from all the solitary shootings and all the massacres. Some senators suggest there may be another vote on background checks before the end of the year. If, as David Wheeler suggested to us, this is a tipping point for the movement against gun violence, the moment has come to push harder than ever.
Make the promise: THIS TIME THERE WILL BE CHANGE.