There is a poem by the writer Brian Bilston that has been trending on social media, which compares several countries to their most iconic items—Japan is a thermal spring, Holland is a wooden shoe, and America is a gun. He is justified in saying so. According to the Gun Violence Archive, the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio this weekend brought America’s total to 251 mass shootings in 216 days. That’s more shootings than there have been days in the year.
As the president of National PTA, I have seen firsthand the impact these shootings have on our nation’s families. Alongside their ABCs, our kindergartners sing songs to remind them to run and hide during active shootings. Parents and teachers desperately try to plan for how they would protect children should the worst happen—and are sometimes forced to turn that plan into action, as one mother did in my home state of Texas, dying as she used her body to shield her 2-month-old baby.
At PTA, we have issued so many statements on mass shootings at schools over the years that we now keep a draft on hand at all times. In every statement, we reminded the nation that our students deserve to have a safe environment in which to thrive and learn. In every statement, we urged Congress to do more.
Preventing gun violence has long been a top priority for PTA. For almost 30 years, National PTA has advocated for gun safety and violence prevention. Our association believes any effort to improve the safety of our nation’s young people and their communities must be comprehensive and include gun safety and violence-prevention measures. Conversations about school safety and gun safety and violence prevention cannot be just about video games and mental health. Our nation’s leaders must acknowledge and address the ease of access to firearms and weapons of war.
We have issued so many statements on mass shootings at schools over the years that we now keep a draft on hand at all times.
PTA leaders and advocates from across the country have submitted thousands of letters, comments, and recommendations to the Federal School Safety Commission and their members of Congress urging policymakers to comprehensively address the need for improved school safety policies and practices, mental-health services for students, and gun safety and violence prevention. Sadly, the Federal School Safety Commission paid little attention to gun safety or violence prevention, and Congress has yet to enact practical legislation to address mass shootings.
We have asked for change. We have said, “Enough is Enough.” Yet, too often, we are met by our congressional leaders simply offering their “thoughts and prayers.” We don’t elect leaders to offer thoughts and prayers. We elect them to build solutions to painful problems—and gun violence is a very painful problem.
Congress must immediately return from its summer recess and take action to enact common-sense proposals, such as passing red flag laws that temporarily limit access to firearms for those who may endanger public safety, strengthening background checks, funding gun violence research efforts, and banning assault weapons. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed the Bipartisan Background Checks Act (H.R. 8)—which our association endorses. Now, it is the Senate’s turn to act. Ninety-seven percent of Americans support universal background checks. Instead of just continually offering “thoughts and prayers,” the Senate needs to pass and the president must sign this bill as a reasonable first step to addressing gun violence in this country.
I was reminded recently of our nation’s founding motto, “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one. Thirteen disparate colonies became one country. One people. Our history is complicated, but we are connected by our national identity. What we do now, on this issue, will define that identity—are we a country that will protect its citizens from danger?
In classrooms this fall, our children will start their day by pledging to their country with these words: “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
What will we pledge to our children? It is up to all of us to create a society filled with compassion, instead of anger. Let us pledge to find the beauty in our differences instead of the fear. Let us pledge to reject ignorance and hatred and embrace tolerance and diversity. Let us pledge to build a better world by committing to end acts of gun violence.
A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2019 edition of Education Week as Congress, Do Something