AFT members press for gun safety

As we mark the fourth annual National Gun Violence Survivors Week Feb. 1-7, AFT activists are banding together and redoubling our union’s push for federal legislation to keep our communities safe from gun violence.

AFT members pushing for gun safety
From left: AFT members Abbey Clements, a survivor of Sandy Hook in Newtown, Conn.; Sarah Lerner, a survivor of Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Fla.; and Sari Beth Rosenberg, a history teacher in New York.

Guns take a terrible toll on our country: Violence using guns is now the leading cause of death for children and teens in the United States. And our rate of death by firearms is 11 times greater than that of peer nations.

As part of our efforts toward commonsense gun safety, the AFT continues to press for action in Congress. While efforts to strengthen the background check system have run into roadblocks in the Senate, the AFT is joining others to increase the safe storage of firearms. More than 4 million American children live in a household with at least one loaded and unlocked gun. Every day, about eight children and teens are injured or killed due to a carelessly stored firearm.

Ethan’s Law is a bill supporting safe gun storage, named for Ethan Song, a Connecticut teenager who died four years ago after accidentally shooting himself with an unsecured gun in a neighbor’s home. The legislation has close to 200 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and is being pushed to a vote.

The AFT also is working on legislation that would provide resources to schools that share information with parents about the best ways to secure and store weapons.

These efforts to promote safe storage complement other practical measures like strengthening background checks, ensuring that every school has enough mental health professionals, and supporting community violence intervention programs.

Momentum is growing

Too many people have thrown their hands up, despairing of ever passing gun safety measures, but there are things we can do, AFT President Randi Weingarten said during a recent telephone town hall. Safe storage legislation would be a good start and is “frankly obvious,” she said. Universal background checks are another popular idea supported by 90 percent of American adults, including gun owners.

“Americans from all across the political spectrum are desperate to keep our kids safe at school,” Weingarten said. Fortunately, there is renewed hope for progress, thanks to growing ranks of people demanding action.

Joining our union’s efforts are three members who decided to launch a coalition―Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence―after the Oxford High School shooting in Michigan in November 2021. The group is dedicated to raising the voices of educators and school staff on gun violence in all its forms.

The group’s three founders, pictured at top from left, are AFT members Abbey Clements, a survivor of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn.; Sarah Lerner, a survivor of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.; and Sari Beth Rosenberg, a writer and high school history teacher in New York City.

Their inaugural event on Jan. 20 was a virtual forum featuring gun violence survivors, a bestselling author, a surgeon and the AFT president.

Voices of experience

Suicide, intimate partner violence and accidental shootings—as well as the all-too-familiar mass shootings—traumatize communities and prevent our society from functioning safely. That’s why the AFT hosted a telephone town hall this past December that brought together gun safety activists.

Gun safety telephone town hall

After the Sandy Hook shootings, some of Clements’ students started falling asleep in class, couldn’t comprehend their schoolwork, and were constantly ridden with trauma and anxiety. Repeatedly, they asked: “What if this happens again?” Clements described how, after the Oxford shooting last fall, one Sandy Hook student who had run for her life nine years ago had to take the day off from school to cope with lingering trauma.

As for teachers, she said some may be struggling to re-enter the classroom and wondering how they can write lesson plans or endure active shooter drills. “Teachers have had quite a run since the onset of the pandemic,” she said, first lauded as heroes and now vilified for teaching history and wearing masks.

Panelist Fred Guttenberg, a Parkland parent who lost his 14-year-old daughter Jaime four years ago and has become a leading voice for gun safety, said he never thought gun violence would touch his family―until it did. Noting that about four Americans per hour are being shot and killed, he said gun violence is not going to fix itself.

“I don’t hate gun owners. I don’t hate the Second Amendment,” he said. “I hate gun violence. And I think most people, even gun owners, agree with that statement. If we can step away from the awful political people, ... I think we can find real common ground.”

Weingarten agreed. “You know, over 100,000 members of the AFT safely own and keep guns,” she said. “Some hunt, target shoot, some even collect exotic 17th-century muskets. All of that is fine. That’s their right.” But, she added, it’s also their moral and legal obligation to keep weapons safely locked and stored.

Americans are tired of gun violence, and they’re voting for people who want to do something about it, Guttenberg said, begging us not to lose momentum. We’re closer to gaining gun safety legislation than at any time in his life, he said. By the same token, we’re just as close to losing it.

Guttenberg urged everyone to mobilize voters for the midterm elections this fall. “We can do this, but we have to keep motivated,” he said. “Not only our lives depend on it but our democracy depends on it.”

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, shared that sentiment, adding: “When we vote, we win.”

Guttenberg advised parents to treat gun safety the same way they would COVID-19 testing or peanut allergies. When your children go to other kids’ houses to play, ask their parents whether they have any loaded or unsecured weapons.

Weingarten said we must figure out ways that “we the people” can get Congress to pass popular legislation, including President Joe Biden’s call to invest $5 billion in evidence-based community violence interventions. Biden touted intervention programs during Feb. 3 events in New York City, including a school visit with Weingarten. And Democrats have provided for funding for violence intervention in the Build Back Better Act, one of the reasons we must keep pushing for its passage.

House Democrats also included a $100 million increase for violence intervention programs in their spending bill for fiscal year 2022, which is still being hashed out. And some of the president’s American Rescue Plan funding, passed last year, can be used to support these programs, with a good example coming from Baltimore.  

Beyond contacting our representatives in Congress, what can we do to help spread the message? Vote for gun safety candidates. Get others to vote. Support violence intervention programs in your city and state. Talk with your friends and neighbors about gun safety.

The gun lobby is weaker than it used to be, Clements said, while the gun safety movement is growing: “They’re not going to be able to stop us because we’re everywhere,” she said. “I think we’re unstoppable.”

[Annette Licitra]