Anyone who has heard me speak knows that I talk a lot about changing the narrative. As a playwright and an arts educator, I have to measure my words carefully.
I wrote an award-winning play called ďFerdinand,Ē about a single dad raising his son to be big and strong but kind and gentle like his namesake the beloved bull. I wrote it for children but I also wrote it to adults because it was really a play about bullying, gender stereotypes, toxic masculinity, and the messages we give to our children and in rehearsal one day, the actor kept paraphrasing and I had to point out why I had written each word and phrase as I had, the intention behind it. He said to me, ďI never realized what a minefield childrenís theatre is.Ē
The conversation about gun violence is not dissimilar to this same minefield, because we must measure our words carefully lest they be misinterpreted or weaponized against us.
It isnít enough to add legislation and we do need stricter gun laws nationwide. In Maryland, we have some of the strongest handgun laws but our sister states laws are so lax we continue to fight an uphill battle. Universal background checks are essential, closing the loopholes which allow for the purchase of long guns without a background check, the weapons of choice in many mass shootings because of their firepower and ease of access must be closed, we cannot pass the concealed carry reciprocity law which would tie the hands of law enforcement and not only make us less safe but would raise the level of fear nation-wide because we would not only have any knowledge of weapons in our midst but would have no recourse to prevent them at the state level.
However, the question becomes, ďWhat can we do at the state level?Ē because universal background checks and reciprocity are federal laws.
There are several ways we can strengthen our existing laws but our first step is we need to declare gun violence a health crisis because this act not only commits us to finding solutions but also creates access to resources and to educational programs in the schools about gun violence and gun safety. Too often we refuse to engage students in the conversation because we believe we are protecting them. However young people are aware, afraid, and want a safe space to talk about their concerns.
We also need to address the long gun loophole, because the majority of mass shootings are not conducted with handguns but with rifles which do not require the same voracity of background checks, waiting periods, or training to obtain, even in Maryland where we have some of the most stringent and effective handgun laws in the country.
However, mass shootings, though they garner the largest portion of media attention are a fraction of the bigger picture of gun violence, another reason we need an educational arm to gun safety. Two-thirds of all deaths by gun violence are suicide.
You will hear many politicians every election cycle and after every shooting talk about mental illness, but when is the last time you heard even one talk about mental health? They donít because mental illness is a talking point to pull focus away from the real issue which is access. We need to address mental health as a parallel issue not only because mental illness is not a predictor of violence and violence is not a predictor of mental illness but also because every time we fob shootings off on mental illness we stigmatize people in crisis, and make it that much more difficult to report, to seek help, and for families to intervene.
I am a huge proponent of the Red Flag Law because it is a tool for families, for law enforcement, and for mental health professionals to hit the pause button without permanently stigmatizing someone who had what may have been a moment of crisis, whether itís mental illness or violence. The law does not require we distinguish between the two.
Itís also time we change the narrative on mass shooting gun violence from mental illness to toxic masculinity. I know that I will be unpopular but the numbers donít lie, yet the numbers are inaccurate. White men represent more than half of the perpetrators of mass shootings, but we donít have consistent numbers to study because we donít even have a universal language to define mass shootings.
I want to establish a commission to study gun violence so we have universally recognized language and can draft evidence-based policy, and to include law enforcement, community leaders, and firearms experts and trainers and address the root causes of toxic masculinity.
Finally, we have to wrest the narrative from the defense of the 2nd Amendment and the minutia of the mechanism. We need to incentivize responsible gun ownership and safe storage programs.
We have stickers issued by the fire department to notify the firefighters of pets within a burning building, yet we have no equivalent notification of firearms on sight for law enforcement or for families with young children, and Iím not talking about: ďThis home protected by Smith and Wesson.Ē
Thatís not a notice, thatís a threat and the responsible gun owner argument falls apart because this is no longer protection it is intimidation. We have to change the culture which equates guns with patriotism and guns with conservatism and that requires a dedicated campaign.
I will champion safe storage incentives and an opt-in campaign led by our law enforcement on the safe storage and notification of firearms on site. If we are going to create a safe space for guns, we have to give notice to those affected by them and if we reward responsible gun ownership, we make it that much more difficult to say this is about the second amendment or protection. If we want to reduce gun violence we have to change the culture which makes it easy to use firearms for intimidation.
Gun violence is a huge issue and it requires not only good, comprehensive policy, and education, but it requires representatives that will speak out even when it is not politically popular or beneficial. Decisions are made in the General Assembly where we are representatives, but the culture is changed in the court of public opinion and in that forum we must be leaders.