We are moms. We are in the PTA. Last year, we became accidental advocates for gun violence prevention. It started with Sandy Hook.
We are all exposed to a steady stream of tragic news stories. We feel a twinge of sadness when we hear them, then we move on with our busy lives. We’re not insensitive. There’s just so much out there. We have to move on. We’ve got stuff to do. But for us, Sandy Hook was different.
The news hit us like a punch in the gut. First-graders massacred in their classroom. We know what those classrooms look like. We could put ourselves there. The smell of wax crayons and finger paint. Smiling stick-figure portraits on the wall. Then, that scene of sweet innocence desecrated by the horror of gunfire. It was almost too much to bear. We could only begin to imagine what the parents were going through. It is our worst nightmare. They were living through it.
The subject came up over the holiday break last year. Isn’t it terrible? Yes. Can you imagine? No. Our protective parenting instincts were triggered. We all share responsibility for looking out for the safety of children. We had failed to protect those kids. We looked at each other. We were the adults in the room. It is our job to look out for our kids’ safety. We decided we weren’t going to sit on the sidelines and wait for other people to do something about the problem of gun violence. We were going to do something. We didn’t know at first what that something would be.
We started by doing some homework. We learned that more people in Washington state now die from gun violence than car accidents each year. We learned that an average of 33 people are murdered by guns in America each day. We started to understand that the high profile shooting in Newtown was just one instance in an ongoing epidemic of gun violence that was tearing apart families and communities every day in this country.
We also learned how strongly many Americans feel about their Second Amendment rights. There are plenty of moms and dads out there who believe that having a gun in the home helps them protect their families. We could understand that impulse.
We were looking for common ground with responsible gun owners: Are there common sense steps we could all agree to that would reduce gun violence?
Universal background checks seemed to fit the bill. Before we started doing research, we had assumed that background checks were conducted on nearly all gun sales. We were surprised to learn that nearly 40 percent of gun sales were happening without a background check. A growing number of those gun sales were taking place online.
That meant that a teenager too young to buy a gun or a convicted felon could go to a website and arrange to purchase a gun from a private seller who would not be required to run a background check or even ask for ID. That did not make sense to us: Background checks are the law, so why shouldn’t we apply the law consistently? Why are we permitting 40 percent of gun sales to slip through the cracks?
All three of us had been active in our local PTAs. We knew what moms and dads could accomplish when they worked together to make great programs happen for kids at school. We also knew that the National PTA has a proud history of taking a stand on controversial issues and speaking out for the well-being of children. PTA parents played a role in bringing about universal kindergarten, hot school lunches, universal immunizations and the juvenile justice system. We decided that we would ask the largest child advocacy organization in the state to take a stand on universal background checks at the Washington State PTA’s annual legislative assembly in October.
As the day of the legislative assembly arrived, we knew that our proposal to add universal background checks to the state PTA’s short term legislative platform had strong support among parents. Over 5,000 parents across Washington state had responded to a poll asking them to rate the proposed issues in importance on a scale of 1 to 5. Universal background checks got an average score of 4.7. That level of support gave us confidence that we were not just bringing up a fringe issue that parents didn’t care about. Parents did care. They were ready to have a conversation about gun violence prevention in the PTA.
The PTA legislative assembly is designed to encourage discussion about controversial issues. Before the vote, members are invited to make public statements in favor of each issue or against it. Those who spoke on both sides of our issue expressed their heartfelt convictions. We made our case that background checks make sense and that they work: States with universal background checks have significantly fewer firearm assaults, suicides and intimate partner murders. The opposition made their case that universal background checks would place an unnecessary burden on responsible gun owners and that bad guys would still find ways to get their hands on guns. In the end, bolstered by a strong majority, the assembly voted to place universal background checks on its short-term legislative platform.
We were pleased with the result. We had gotten off the sidelines, and it had made a difference. We know that it is only a very small step on the road to reducing gun violence in our communities. Tackling this issue over the long haul will require patience, commitment and a willingness to engage in uncomfortable conversations. We are grateful to the PTA for providing us with a forum for discussing gun violence. We are grateful to those on both sides of the issue for sharing their views in a thoughtful, respectful way. We will keep advocating for universal background checks and we will keep working to make our communities safer. Like it or not, we are the adults in the room. Our kids are counting on us.
In early 2014, state legislators will be asked to consider I-594, calling for all gun purchases to go through background checks. Look up your legislators here, and send a letter telling them what you think.
Meredith Goldstein is a past PTSA President and Golden Acorn winner. She lives in Kirkland with her two sons. Linda Leste is a former Membership Director of her local PTSA. She is a single mom raising her three elementary school kids in Kirkland. Bonnie McDaniel is Legislation Director of her local PTSA. She also has three children in elementary school and lives in Kirkland.