Redouble efforts to end gun violence

Stacey Newman (left) is pictured in 2000 with her daughter Sophie and Rosie O’Donnell. 

By Stacey Newman

Exactly 15 years ago, I was part of a 60-member St. Louis delegation sponsored by Temple Israel that attended the historic Million Mom March in Washington on Mother’s Day.  We were all ages, from grade-schoolers to retirees.

Many of us had spent hours the year before watching on television the aftermath of the Columbine High School mass shooting in May 1999.  Again we watched in horror just months later as preschoolers were led holding hands across the parking lot of the Granada Hills Jewish Community Day Care Center after another senseless shooting.

Every major Jewish organization and numerous synagogues across the country said enough – enough with senseless gun violence, which was out of control in cities in every state. Losing 10 children a day to gun violence was unacceptable.

The march, inspired by a New York mother, Donna Dees-Thomases, galvanized gun violence survivors, parents, physicians, law enforcers, clergy, celebrities and elected officials, including President Bill Clinton. 

The goal was for 10,000 to march.  But on that Mother’s Day, more than 750,000 people from almost every state and several countries  showed up at the Capitol, accompanied in spirit by people rallying in 70 other cities on the same day.  More than 1 million people on May 14, 2000, demanded that Congress do something about gun violence and at least extend the expiring national assault-weapons ban.

I’ll always remember the masses of people covering the Capitol mall for endless blocks.  I remember the emotion of the day as Robert F. Kennedy’s daughters, Columbine parents, Granada Hills JCC day care parents, inner city parents and emergency room physicians spoke of their losses.  I remember the strong sense of determination as hundreds of thousands of us were told to go back home and work to pass common-sense policies to save lives.  

A week before the Million Mom March, our daughter Sophie, then a first-grader, wrote to Rosie O’Donnell and appeared on her show to talk about guns in schools.  It was surreal to see our 7-year-old on national television speak out more bravely than most of us had.  She highlighted the fear that she and other children live with concerning gun violence.

But even more surreal is that in the past 15 years, the rate of gun violence has continued to explode, particularly in our metropolitan area.  Most citizens remain numb to the everyday media reports because either a) it takes higher numbers of fatalities to affect us, or b) we’ve succumbed to the gun lobby influence or c) we believe it doesn’t affect our neighborhoods … yet.  

But we all recoiled as an anti-Semitic madman opened fire last spring at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas, and a nearby Jewish retirement community, killing three. More recently, in St. Louis, two young sisters were shot and killed in a vacant lot by an unknown assailant – but I guarantee most of us missed that news.  And that was just one of the shootings that occurred that particular day in Missouri.

Never in my wildest dreams marching with my Jewish brothers and sisters that day in Washington did I believe that the Million Mom March would lead me to serving in the Missouri House.  Running for office was the furthest from my reality. But I had a sense I could do something and immediately began a three-year odyssey to Jefferson City lobbying against concealed-weapons bills.  

Our daughter also lobbied with her friends and held press conferences, and my husband, Burt, challenged the 2003 concealed-weapons law in the state Supreme Court.  As a family, we were motivated by tikkun olam, repairing the world as we best knew how.

And today?  

Nine children continue to be shot every day in the United States.  Twenty innocent first-graders and six educators were gunned down in their elementary school, yet Congress turned a blind eye and did absolutely nothing.  More than 100 school and university shootings have happened since that Sandy Hook tragedy in December 2012 and continue each month, drawing little publicity.  

In Missouri, gun deaths have outpaced automobile deaths three years in a row.  St. Louis and Kansas City rank among the top 10 cities in the U.S. in gun killings. Voters last November amended our state constitution, giving felons more gun rights, hamstringing prosecutors and allowing criminals back on the street. 

Our Legislature debates each session how to increase firearm access, including expanding our “Castle Doctrine/shoot to kill” law while bills expanding background checks and removing guns from domestic abusers are ignored.

As a mother, I was optimistic 15 years ago that we could stop the horror of burying our children before their time.   As a state representative, I continue to work both with legislators in Missouri and other states who believe as I do.  We cannot ignore kids, especially first-graders, who deserve to be safe.

I am encouraged and am working with the new Washington University Institute of Public Health’s yearlong gun violence prevention initiative, which was inspired by a mother, Risa Zwerling, the wife of Chancellor Mark Wrighton.  

I was inspired last week as I attended the national Brady Campaign’s annual event in Los Angeles honoring the women of the Million Mom March – because these mothers are not quitting. 

And I keep working to motivate voters to use their power on election day and insist that their elected officials not be bought by the gun lobby.

I am positive on this Mother’s Day that we can collectively, finally, make saving lives a real priority. It is long overdue.

Stacey Newman is Missouri state representative of the 87th District, which includes Clayton and parts of Brentwood, Ladue, Richmond Heights and University City.