One day, 30 years ago, working on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., I took a call from someone who wanted to weigh in on a gun proposal before Congress.
He was opposed to a bill cosponsored by my boss that would ban the transfer and ownership of assault weapons.
I worked for U.S Rep. Mike Synar of Oklahoma, my home state. We had taken a lot of calls on the subject and I decided to ask this caller what he does with his assault weapon. He said, “I have a lot of fun with it.”
As far as I know that man has not killed anyone, but, since that call, hundreds of civilians have been killed with these weapons in multiple cities: in schools, at concerts, in businesses.
Now such a tragedy has happened here in Louisville. We will be forever on that list of cities that had citizens – including children – killed in mass shootings: Las Vegas; Parkland; Uvalde; Nashville; Newtown, to name a few.
There’s no fun in this.
No background checks. No waiting periods. No regulation of assault-style weapons. Any one of those safety checks might have stopped the Louisville shooter. Friends might be alive. The shooter might have gotten the mental health care he needed and never become a killer.
But powerful interests say that our Constitution doesn’t allow any type of gun control.
To be clear, here’s what it actually says:
A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
I think the words “well regulated” give us all we need to enact some safety measures in gun ownership. There have been multiple efforts on the national, state, and local levels to create safer communities with regard to common sense gun laws. But those powerful interests, like the National Rifle Association, rise up and stop many elected officials from acting, while deaths pile up.
Since 2008, over 2,842 have died in mass shootings, according to a PBS report. In 2023 alone so far, 88 lives have been lost to gun violence in 17 incidents over 111 days (as of April 21). (Update: The AP just released a list of mass shootings in the U.S. this year – 22 so far.)
I have always believed – as many do – that we can have some gun safety measures without infringing on citizens’ rights. If you asked someone if they support gun control, they might say no. But if you ask if they think people with mental or criminal records should be able to buy a gun, I bet they’d say no to that, too.
We can own guns in a safer way. We just have to hold our elected officials accountable. Most of them are scared of you and think you don’t support gun safety. They are frozen by interest groups which spend millions on the status quo, no matter what those deadly statistics tell us.
It’s past time to act. Rep. Synar reacted to the 1981 shooting of Jim Brady, President Reagan’s press secretary, by cosponsoring the Brady Bill, which called for a five-day waiting period for purchasing a handgun, a measure supported by President Reagan. A few years later, when he cosponsored the bill to ban assault weapons, the National Rifle Association pointed both barrels at him. The gun industry found a partner in tobacco interests, another interest group that Synar stood up to. He had advocated for smokeless tobacco restrictions after an Oklahoma teen died from cancer caused by its use, and he advocated for prohibiting marketing of tobacco products to youth.
Pretty soon, in 1994, that type of opposition in Oklahoma defeated Congressman Synar, after serving nine terms in Congress. But his courage and persistence won him a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.
Political courage makes a difference.
Mike Synar died in January of 1996 after a diagnosis of a fast-growing type of brain cancer called glioblastoma, the same disease that killed Sen. Ted Kennedy.
President Bill Clinton spoke at Mike Synar’s memorial service. He said, “He always had that wonderful saying, you know, ‘If you don’t want to fight fires, don’t be a fireman. If you don’t want to cast votes, don’t be a congressman.”
And if you really don’t want to be a leader, don’t run for office.
We the voters have a responsibility in this, too. Be knowledgeable about who you are voting for. Ask for their positions on issues you care about, including gun safety. We can make a difference and save lives.
Written by Debbie Wesslund, who served two terms on the Jefferson County Board of Education, and currently provides training for board members. A native of Oklahoma, she worked in Washington D.C. for two members of Congress from her home state, serving as press secretary and staff director.