A grim theory on how we get gun safety laws

March 29, 2023 4:30 am

In Nashville, Rev. Ingrid McIntyre hugs a mourner during a Monday night vigil for shooting victims at Belmont Methodist Church. (Photo: John Partipilo, Tennessee Lookout, States Newsroom).

TENNESSEE — Nashville-based writers already have written movingly about the tragic gun crime at Covenant School, yet another school shooting — this one took the lives of three children and three adults.

Let me add this perspective from only a modest distance away, my adopted home of Knoxville is less than a 3-hour drive east of Nashville.

You see, I am a survivor of a hate crime involving blasts of gunfire.  My church, Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist, was having a special service on July 27, 2008; it was a children’s play, a condensed version of Annie.  A gunman came into our sanctuary early in the play, took out a modified shotgun hidden in a guitar case and blasted away. My friend and an usher that day, Greg McKendry, tried to stop that gunman.  Greg’s burly body took some of the blast, saving many lives — likely including my own.

I had reflexively dived under a pew by the time of the second blast. Several in my congregation, including John Bohstedt (dressed as Daddy Warbucks for the play) and another friend Jamie Parkey, tackled the gunman.  Greg bled out on the floor of the church he loved. A visitor, Linda Kraeger, there for the play also died, and six were wounded.  My wife, in an office at the time, was the first to call 911.  The gunman said he had targeted us to kill liberals, and he had brought 76 shells of #4 shot, ammunition for a bloodbath.

I recall this story to explain a grim theory I have about how and when we finally will get effective and meaningful gun safety legislation in our state and our country. Dozens of dead children in Aurora, Uvalde, Parkland, and Newtown did not move our radical right legislators.  After this Nashville shooting, several predictably barfed some vacuous variation on “thoughts and prayers.”  We will not have serious gun safety laws until those gun-fetishist legislators lose elections to brave challengers willing to defy convention and run loud and aggressive campaigns pointing out the blood on the incumbents’ hands.

The political coalition to do this is being built by groups like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Everytown for Gun Safety.  Their ranks grow daily not only by political persuasion, but also by tragic personal experience.  The Gun Violence Archive numbers from 2022 help explain.  That year alone 44,333 people overall died from gun violence, more than 20,000 from homicides, murders, (including 646 mass shootings) and accidents, and more than 24,000 from suicides. The number of injuries tallied 38,588 nationwide.

Now let’s assume those dead and injured leave each have six friends and relatives who reconsider any past hesitation on gun safety laws based on the hard realities of what has happened to people they know. That would mean every year of gun carnage in America leads to roughly half a million more people who have had enough of inaction, deflection, and denial. The gun extremists, by excusing the piles of dead and injured neighbors, are building the coalition that eventually will defeat their putrid cause.

The Gun Violence Archive numbers also give us strong clues about the kinds of legislation that must be passed.  Let’s start with laws to prohibit gun sales to spouse abusers. Let’s also allow the clinically depressed to put themselves on a no-purchase list so when deep despair strikes they will not succumb to the fleeting but strong desired to kill themselves. We can pass stronger laws requiring gun locks, licensing, background checks, training , and safe storage — and require insurance for all gun owners just as we require insurance for car drivers (and with stiff economic penalties and legal liability for those who fail any of those safety steps). Of course, we also must return to the days when we banned assault weapons from sale, and provably reduced deaths from those weapons.

Different steps will be needed to deal with the hate and mental illness lingering behind America’s tragic gun death tallies, but failure to solve all the deaths cannot be used as an excuse to take steps that will avoid many of the deaths and injuries.  We stand far ahead of other nations in gun deaths, and have more guns than people.  It’s time to elevate the people over the guns in our plans for our future together.



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Mark Harmon
Mark Harmon

Mark D. Harmon is a professor of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tennessee.