Op-ed: Weapons of war are on our streets. We must protect America’s children

Risa Zwerling Wrighton, the wife of University President Mark Wrighton, is a social worker, educator and community activist. In 2015, she and her husband, the then-Chancellor of Washington University, launched the Gun Violence Prevention Initiative at Washington University in St. Louis to raise awareness of gun violence and explore ways to address the epidemic as a public health crisis. The initiative spawned increased understanding of the drivers of gun violence and ongoing life-saving programs in hospitals, public health settings and highly impacted communities.

In 2014, a beautiful 16-year-old girl named Chelsea Harris was shot and killed after school by a bullet intended for someone else. Chelsea lived in a crime-ridden neighborhood in St. Louis, where countless of our fellow Americans live every day and try to stay alive. I was a mentor to Chelsea since she was 9 years old, and her death pierced my bubble of privilege – being tucked away in an upscale zip code no longer protected me from the pain that guns have wreaked upon countless Americans. After Chelsea died, my husband Mark Wrighton and I joined the movement of brave people working tirelessly to combat gun violence through education, research and activism.

These heroes keep victims alive long enough to get them to a hospital, prevent survivors from retaliating and secure guns in the homes of suicidal people. Some, like former trauma surgeon Dr. LJ Punch, have founded clinics that treat the physical and mental scars that come with gun violence. Others, like members of D.C.’s Cure the Streets program, work to stop or mediate conflicts before they start.

These and many other crucial violence interruption practices save lives, but they are not enough – Chelsea’s death, one of hundreds of gun-related homicides in St. Louis each year, was preventable. As I wrote at the time, our leaders failed to act after Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot in 2011 and the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. Carnage is commonplace in America – we’ve become inured to gun violence, accepting active shooter drills at work and school, buying bulletproof backpacks and bracing for the next tragedy in the face of government inaction. What, if anything, will make a difference?

We have now hit that breaking point – almost eight years, hundreds of mass shootings and tens of thousands of gun-related deaths later, the murder of 21 people in Uvalde, Texas finally pushed our government to act. After a month of negotiations in the U.S. House and Senate, President Joe Biden finally signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act into law Saturday.

The law’s provisions, which include stricter background checks on 18 to 21-year-old buyers among other new regulations, will save many lives. Yet it didn’t go nearly far enough. To get the legislation passed, lawmakers took banning assault rifles off the table. These guns are weapons of war, designed to injure or kill as many people as possible in a short amount of time. And over and over, from Sandy Hook to Orlando to Las Vegas to Parkland, Florida, they have done exactly that.

Yet, just as we took this small but necessary step forward, the Supreme Court struck down a New York law permitting licensed firearm owners to carry a concealed weapon outside the home. Some will remind us that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives us the right to bear arms. But I don’t believe our Founding Fathers intended the Second Amendment to arm and protect our most blighted neighborhoods, to arm and protect mentally disturbed individuals, to arm and protect criminals and anyone whose ego needs bolstering with assault rifles. Do we need concealed weapons and assault rifles to pursue our happiness? To protect our liberty? I don’t think so. Our nation is nothing short of a battlefield. It’s war – and the innocent people of our country are paying with their lives every day.

Guns are nothing less than weapons of mass destruction. They are demeaning and destroying our nation. From my dear Chelsea to Parkland to Uvalde, we have already failed so many. The next preventable shooting is happening right now. None of us are safe – but we can be. We, and especially our leaders, need to own up to our shameful failure to protect all Americans. We legislated mandatory seat belt use and smoking restriction laws to save lives. Now, we need to better protect our citizens from the deadly force of guns – is that too much to ask?

But as we round up these weapons, we also need to reach out to those who use them – those who feel they don’t have much to lose by embracing a culture of violence. There are endemic, insidious reasons that influence why someone pulls the trigger, like a lack of employment or mental health resources and even the built environment. We know that providing these resources and strengthening the communities gun violence most affects reduces violence. The battle doesn’t end at guns – we need to fight this war on multiple fronts.

I’m just so sad, as many of us are. The vast majority of Americans want the senseless killing to end and the guns off the streets. We can channel that sadness and anger into action that goes beyond slow-moving legislative compromise. There is more work to do, and we must vote for government representatives who are willing to stand strong and save America from its own destruction. For Chelsea, the children of Sandy Hook, Parkland and Uvalde and for children across the nation, we must dare to dream of a better world.

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