I teach history at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. On February 14, 2018, my school experienced one of the worst mass school shootings in American history. People want to know what we saw, what I felt. I don't remember everything, but I do remember I went into crisis mode, mother mode. There was no emotion. I lined up the kids, I held up a sign so they could follow me through the hall, just like a fire drill. I heard shots from one direction. Luckily, we were already moving in the opposite direction.
We made it outside. We made it to safety. I called my mother. "I'm OK." I called my husband. "I'm OK." Then my daughter called, my voice cracked, and I knew I had to pull myself together. I sat alone in my thoughts, worried about my colleagues and students. We sat there, only understanding that somehow, Valentine's Day—We sat there, only understanding that somehow, Valentine's Day had ended up with our babies dead, and we didn't know what to do next.
It's been two months, and every day I still hear the echoes of the "pop, pop" sound of the gunfire. I remember the fearful faces of my students when we knew it wasn't a drill. Still, there's no constant emotion, except for flashes of pain, grief and anger triggered by the news, or an insensitive comment, or just silence.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School lost 17 precious lives on that horrible day. After, students asked us, the adults the hardest question: How can we stop the senseless violence? This was the most difficult question I've been asked. But it was not the first time I've been humbled by a student's question. I've been teaching in the public schools for 33 years, so I know you have to admit what you don't know before you can share what you do know. In fact, there's a method to being an engaged student, teacher, citizen. First, listen closely to the person asking you a question. Second, admit your vulnerability. Admit what you don't know. Third, do your homework. Fourth, humbly share your knowledge.
I know all about this process. My students ask really thoughtful questions all the time. They're eager to learn, and sometimes they're eager to prove their smarts. And believe me, they know when I have no idea of the answer, so in those instances, I say to them, "That's a great question. Let me research that and get back to you."
So when my students asked, "How do we stop this senseless violence?" I listened, and then I admitted, "I don't know." And like I always do when I don't know the answer to one of my questions, I began doing my homework. And as a history teacher, I knew I needed to start with the Second Amendment and the NRA.
In case it's been a while since you've been sitting in a history class, here is what the Second Amendment 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." Meaning, the federal government could not infringe on the rights of citizens to participate in well-regulated militias. The Second Amendment was ratified 226 years ago. It was written in a time before the federal government's armed forces were among the most powerful in the world and when state militias were viewed as necessary to protect the states.
Fast-forward 80 years, to 1871. The American Civil War had ended a few years prior, but a couple of Union officers had witnessed some pretty shoddy marksmanship on the battlefield. So in an attempt to prepare their men for any future conflicts, they founded the National Rifle Association to promote rifle practice.
In short, the Second Amendment was written to ensure that our newly formed and fragile country had access to organized state militias. And the NRA's original mission was to ensure future soldiers had good aim.
Someone could teach an entire course on how the next 150 years influenced the gun regulation conversations we're having in the United States and our interpretation of the Second Amendment. Almost every pivotal moment in our nation's history in one way or another influenced how we as a people manufacture, debate, regulate and feel about guns. A lot of change has occurred. As a matter of fact, it wasn't until 2008 that the Supreme Court ruled for the first time the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home. Within the home.
This change over time is striking to me, because it reminds us that the interpretation of the Second Amendment and cultural attitudes about guns have changed over time. Which gives me hope they could change again.
It's an incredibly complex and dynamic history lesson, but it's not the lesson I'm here to teach today, because we don't have time. I'm not talking about time, the time that I have here to stand and speak. I'm talking about the fact we don't have time to lose. According to the CDC, over the last five years, on average, each day 96 people are killed by guns in the United States, and if we don't figure out how to answer my students' question soon, one of us could be next.
So, if the question is, how do we stop this senseless violence, the best way I can think to answer is to look at multiple choice. You remember multiple-choice questions in high school, don't you? Let's start.
Choice A: this will end when we hold gun manufacturers responsible for the deadliness of their products. It might surprise you to learn that we've actually thought about this before. Between 1998 and 2000, 30 counties and cities sued gun manufacturers, saying they should make their products safer and do a better job of tracking where their products are sold. In response, manufacturers argued that they had no direct liability for how their products were used. They said the stores who sold the guns and the owners who bought them were responsible should anything bad happen. In response to this and many other lawsuits, the NRA lobbied for the passage of the PLCAA, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. The PLCAA passed with bipartisan support in 2005 and entrusts gun manufacturers to design guns safely, stores to sell those guns responsibly and someone to own and use the gun responsibly. And so when 17 students and faculty die at my school, no one in this chain will assume responsibility.
Let's take a look at another option, Choice B: this will end when we hold ourselves accountable and regulate the estimated 300 million guns available in America. Yes, voting is one of the best ways to take personal responsibility for gun violence. Making sure that our lawmakers are willing to pass commonsense gun reform is one of the most effective ways to get those 300 million guns under control. And also, gun owners can take personal initiative. If you own a gun, ask yourself: Do I have an extra gun I don't need? Could it fall into the wrong hands? Have I attended the latest training? Perhaps as a gun owner, you should also ask whether you have been taking care of your mental health? When it comes to gun violence, the mental health argument falls flat if we don't acknowledge our own personal vulnerabilities to mental illness. One in six Americans will struggle with mental illness. If we own a gun, we should be rigorously engaged in the upkeep of our emotional well-being so we don't pull a trigger in times of illness. Otherwise, we should seriously ask ourselves whether we really have the time and attention to own a gun. Perhaps for some of us it's time to lay down our arms.
Then we have Choice C: this will end when we do a better job of taking care of each other. Many social issues affect why people buy and use guns. Sixty-two percent of US gun fatalities between 2012 and 2016 were suicides, yet we call people maniacs and psychos, shaming them. We are creating barriers for people that need help. Why are we embarrassing each other? Let's make it easier, not harder, for people to access better mental health care. What else? Sexism, racism and poverty affect gun ownership and gun-related fatalities. On average, it's estimated that 50 women were fatally shot each month between 2010 and 2014 due to domestic violence, and women are still dying in their homes. Let's empower women and give our young boys a chance to learn how to work out their conflicts and emotions with words, not weapons. And the "Washington Post" reported that last year, nearly 1,000 people were fatally wounded by on-duty police officers. Talk to Black Lives Matter and the police union about that. We need to tackle this.
At the end of the day, perhaps people won't feel the need to buy and use a gun when they all equally feel safe, healthy, respected and cared for.
All right, discussion time is over. It's now time to answer the question. How do we stop this senseless violence? Is it Choice A, Choice B, Choice C? Now, I know what you're all thinking. You remember that multiple-choice questions almost never end with just three possibilities. There's always that fourth, Choice D: all of the above. Maybe that's the answer here. Or maybe "all of the above" is too easy, and this is not an easy problem. It requires deep analytical thinking by all of us. So instead, I'm asking you to do your homework, write your own Choice D using supporting detail. And if you're not sure where to start, look to my students as role models. They are armed with incredible communication skills and a sense of citizenship that I find so inspiring.
These are public school kids engaged in the issue of gun regulation, and their endeavor has moved our hearts. And they shouldn't have to do this on their own. They're asking you, they're asking all of us, to get involved. This isn't a spectator sport.
So what's the right answer? I don't know. Listen, I'm no gun control expert. I teach the humanities. To be human is to learn, and to be part of a civilization is to share your knowledge. This kind of honest, brave and sincere engagement is what I ask of my students, what I expect of myself as a teacher and what I demand of you now. Every one of you needs to do your homework. And then what? Humbly share your knowledge with each other. Please teach your family, teach your community, your city council, your state legislature. Teach Congress a lesson. Thank you.