The Spokesman-Review

Opinion

Jamie Tobias Neely: Look at children’s faces, then act

It’s been an especially weepy holiday season.

Just after Christmas, a friend shared one of those viral videos, this one of a city plaza in Sabadell, Spain. In it a bass player in white tie and tails begins a few familiar notes. Soon he is joined by a cellist, a bassoonist, and eventually a choir and an entire symphony orchestra. As they perform Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy,” the music becomes stronger and more triumphant, and children in the crowd beam and dance.

One little girl in a red tunic shimmies up a lamppost to get a better view. The sight of that child’s earnest face brought tears to my eyes.

I suspect that it was the faces of children that made so many of us, beginning most notably on Dec. 14 with the president of the United States, weep this season.

Those were tears none of us should have had reason to shed, least of all the families of the 20 children who were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Their murders were senseless and preventable. Each one of those children should be as vibrant and enthralled today as the children on that Spanish plaza.

By last week Sandy Hook students had returned to school at a new location and our attention had been diverted. But the need to protect children, both across the country and here in Spokane, continues stronger than ever.

So much has gone so wrong in American politics. It now seems that the biggest irony of all in this country has been that for politicians at all levels, the bravest, most foolhardy action they could take in recent years has been to advocate for policies to keep kids safe.

Children ages 5 to 14 are 13 times more likely to die of gunfire in the U.S. than in other First World countries, according to Harvard public health expert David Hemenway.

Clearly, there are solutions. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence has found that most states like California that have the strongest gun laws in the country also have the lowest rates of gun deaths.

More than 800 U.S. mayors have joined a coalition called Mayors Against Illegal Guns. They pledge to find innovative ways to prevent gun violence and keep “lethal, military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines” off their streets. A bill has been introduced in the House to ban high-capacity magazines. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has promised to introduce legislation restricting assault weapons. Yet, even after Sandy Hook, it will take bravery for members of the House and Senate to pass them.

Courage isn’t the first trait that comes to mind as I examine our local politicians’ responses.

As of last Thursday, Spokane Mayor David Condon had promised to work closely with Spokane Public Schools to protect children, but he hadn’t considered joining the national mayors coalition.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ website does not mention gun control, only her support of the Second Amendment.

And even the office of outgoing Gov. Chris Gregoire, known as the “Tiger Lady” for leading state attorneys general in fighting tobacco companies in the 1990s, declined to comment last week.

There is no end of possible solutions. There are the twin poles, facile and illogical, of putting a gun expert in every classroom or, my favorite, a teacher in every gun store. The sensible strategies include strong laws against assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, limits on frequent gun purchases, gun buyback programs and requirements for universal background checks. One Berkeley law professor recommends making the gun manufacturers themselves responsible for reducing American gun deaths.

As with preventing deaths from smoking or car accidents, we should tackle gun violence as a legal problem, a mental health issue, a public health crisis, a product safety challenge and a cultural failing.

Six-year-olds can’t wait for politicians to screw up their courage. The children’s vulnerability, especially in the face of so much political timidity, strikes at our core.

When I listen to “Ode To Joy,” I hear in my mind the Henry Van Dyke lyrics I learned as a girl. “Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away; Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day.”

I’m planning to welcome my first grandchild into the world in April. If I were not, Sandy Hook would still make me weep. Consider the faces of the children in your neighborhood. Can any of us, parents, grandparents, members of the human family, bear not to protect them?

It’s time to cast dark doubts away.

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former associate editor at The Spokesman-Review, is an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her email address is jamietobiasneely@comcast.net


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