It’s been a hard week. An American high school once again experienced a completely preventable tragedy when an angry, young man brought an AR-15 in to his old high school and murdered 17 students and educators and injured 14 more.
As a leader of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, I was already exhausted from battling the legislature in Annapolis over gun reform bills. Then on Wednesday, February 14th, I saw a news bulletin about the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Americans have become so fluent in these tragedies, I knew the first report of a handful of injuries was only the beginning. As the day went on, I watched the numbers of dead and injured children climb. I watched the videos of terrified students huddled under their desks. I did not cry. We are all so numb.
Yesterday, as the names of victims were starting to be released and I worked on a press release about the tragedy, I looked out my front window and watched as helicopters flew over my local school, Loch Raven High School. A friend called to inform me that the roads nearby were blocked off with police because a student had a gun. I used to teach English at Loch Raven. My own children will one day attend the school. I hit my breaking point and wept.
Luckily, the incident at Loch Raven ended with no injuries or lives lost. It was only a misguided kid who brought a pellet gun in his backpack, but the terror the students, parents, teachers, and community felt was real. This was also not the only incident of a student bringing a gun into a Maryland school. A student at Clarksburg High School was arrested for bringing a loaded handgun to school on Thursday. A mass shooting can happen anywhere in this country and none of us are immune.
As we think of the suffering victims and families from Stoneman Douglas High, many of us want to do more. We want to do more to honor all of the lives taken by gun violence, whether that’s in a school, theater, or on the streets of Baltimore. We need our leaders to do more to prevent this from happening again.
So, what can our leaders do?
The most effective gun violence prevention policies need to happen on the federal level. Maryland has passed much meaningful gun legislation, but we are not an island, and guns flow into our state with relative ease. Congress needs to make the public health and safety of all Americans a bigger priority than the profits of the gun industry and pass policies that will reduce gun deaths and injuries.
The first step is closing the gaping private sale loophole is passing universal background checks for all firearms. Background checks help prevent prohibited purchasers, like felons and domestic abusers, from gaining access to guns. While background checks are necessary, they are not sufficient. A background check should be supplemented with state permit-to-purchase requirements to ensure that purchasers have registered their firearms with local law enforcement and taken a safety course. While registry is a right-wing conspirator’s idea of a road to confiscation, it is merely an effective tool for law enforcement to prevent bad guys from having firearms. Permits help make a background check more enforceable and effective. Processing the permits through local law enforcement also provides a closer look at red-flags that the NICS system might have missed. More safeguards on the systems means more lives saved. We are lucky to have passed this life-saving policy in Maryland, but many other states need to use it as their own model.
Congress must also immediately reinstate the Assault Weapons Ban and limitation on magazine capacity. The 19-year-old shooter at Stoneman Douglas High School used the weapon-of-choice among mass shooters: an AR-15. Had he not had access to this weapon of war or high-capacity magazines, more people would have survived. Shooters choose these weapons for a reason: they can kill many people very quickly. There is no place for them on our streets. And we know since the US Court of Appeals upheld Maryland’s Assault Weapons Ban, there is no threat to anyone’s Second Amendment rights. At a MINIMUM, Congress needs to raise the age limit of all firearms to 21 years of age.
As for our state leaders, they need to pass an effective Extreme Risk Protective Order (ERPO). Delegate Geraldine Valentino-Smith is introducing this legislation this session. An ERPO enables family members who fear someone is a danger to themselves or others to petition the courts to temporarily remove firearms from their possession. Similar legislation passed in California after the Isla Vista Shooting. Like the shooter in Florida, the shooter in Isla Vista had posted videos and threats with firearms against the school and community. This policy would have given law enforcement a way to remove those firearms and potentially prevent both tragedies. People are questioning why something was done if everyone knew the Parkland shooter was a threat. Without a clear process like ERPO, state and local law enforcement to not have the tools or legal means to do so. Additionally, an ERPO would help remove guns from those who are suffering from a personal crisis and contemplating suicide. Gun suicides make up two-thirds of all gun deaths and must be a part of the conversation.
Our state leaders also need to stand strong against all the bills aimed at weakening our strong gun laws. If we get complacent, the gun lobby will succeed in whittling away our gun laws the way they have done in state legislatures across the country. We cannot take anything for granted. There are over 30 bad gun bills being considered by the Maryland General Assembly, including a bill to allow teachers or staff to be armed. We cannot allow this dangerous thinking to become normalized. More guns are not the answer.
We need you to help pressure these leaders to make these policies law. We cannot allow Stoneman Douglas High School to just be another name on a list. We cannot allow the everyday gun homicides and injuries to continue on our city streets. We cannot allow the daily suicides to happen without a word. We cannot allow any of this to continue without a fight. With the midterm elections fast-approaching, remember the Stoneman Douglas shooting when you walk into the voting booth. If Congress won’t protect us, we need a Congress who will.
You can join us in Annapolis for hearings and lobbying your representatives. Perhaps you cannot make it in person, so you can call your state leaders. You can attend our membership meetings. You can host or attend a house party to spread the word about this issue and the solutions that will reduce gun death and injury. You can attend a forum or panel discussion later MPGV is organizing later this spring about gun violence and educate yourself on this public health crisis. You can join Baltimore Ceasefire for their quarterly events to reduce gun violence in Baltimore. We can help raise up the voices of young people who are suffering trauma in their own schools due to the proliferation on guns in our communities.
Working toward these goals gives me purpose and helps me get back up after each tragedy when I have been brought to my knees. Join us at www.mdpgv.org and raise your own voice! Together, we can make this country safer for all our children.
Jen Pauliukonis, President
Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence