Where Gun Control and Youth Opportunity Connect

January 22, 2013

Images: Jan Richter and children in her hometown.

Jon Stewart opened a pretty shocking Daily Show segment on the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) with the line, “Following a series of terrible gun tragedies in this country, and let's call it 30 years of urban warfare, America is in the midst of a serous conversation about guns.” (Get the transcript and watch the videos).

He’s largely right about urban warfare. But that doesn't mean those of us who don't live in big cities can afford to ignore gun violence and the policies currently being debated.

Amid gun control debates, we can't lose sight of the importance of growing up feeling safe.

I live in a small Southern town. On Main Street, you'll find no traffic lights and more pick-up trucks than SUVs. People leave their trucks running when they grab their mail at the post office. And in most homes, you’ll find guns – for deer hunting, for keeping groundhogs out of our gardens and just because it’s a tradition. In my house, we have a .22 rifle and a pellet gun.

We’ve had a few gun fatalities, including a tragic event when a young man taken in by his aunt and uncle ended up fatally shooting them both. The local court is determining whether he’s mentally fit to stand trial.

But in a rural town, it’s rare to hear of the levels of gun violence we hear about in big cities like Chicago, where a stray bullet can take the life of an innocent victim in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fortunately our local gun culture combines the right to have a gun with the responsibility to make sure it is stored and used safely.

On the other hand, our kids exercise too little and eat too much prepackaged or fast food. With jobs scarce and wages low, more families have recently become eligible for food stamps, which many find humiliating. At least with an EBT card, being on food stamps is more discreet than using WIC vouchers, which take a long time to process at the grocery store. I understand there are families who shop outside the county so their neighbors won’t know they get WIC vouchers.

Jan with KidsOur schools do a good job, but our high school and middle school were built in 1958. The science labs are ill-equipped to teach students modern techniques, the wiring is at capacity for computer use and our bathrooms are in need of repair. Our school board has a plan to borrow money at today’s low-interest rates to make the necessary repairs and renovations that have long been neglected, but some in our county are so averse to any public spending that they claim “children can learn in a plum tree if the teacher is good enough.”

Some of our families struggle with alcoholism, drug use or child abuse.

But here’s the deal: Despite our differences and disagreements, we feel like neighbors. Our kids feel safe in school and on our playgrounds.  That’s what I would wish for every child in America: an unchallenged assumption that their homes, their streets and their schools are safe.

We know that assumption can prove false. Surely, it must have felt safe in Newtown, Connecticut until Dec. 14, and now there is a long road ahead to restore that sense of safety. However, in too many communities across the U.S., our kids have never grown up with the assumption that they are safe.  Guns are endemic in street violence, in domestic violence disputes, and in illegal activities.

It shouldn’t be this way. In this country, it shouldn’t be a lofty dream that every child can grow up feeling that they have choices and opportunities—to be healthy, successful, to pursue their goals. That no child should fear they won’t live to see adulthood, or assume that they won’t be prepared and supported to be successful.

Right now, our toxic politics around violence, gun control and government supports often make progress feel impossible.

I hope that this month—and this next term in Congress—may change all that.

Don’t waste your breath telling me that we can’t stop every gun killing or every mass murderer intent on violence; I know we can’t. But I also know what it’s like for kids to grow up feeling safe and secure – and that it makes a difference for them, a difference worth fighting for.

Part 2

Get the full episode on The Daily Show site.

Jan Richter is a retired clinical social worker and child psychotherapist, and long-time children's advocate and writes the SparkAction Update. Read her bio here.



Jan Richter