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Kunin: Guns and Lawmakers

“Why did Chris die?” Richard Martinez asked all of us after the shooting death of his son and five other students on the University of California, Santa Barbara campus.

I cannot get his anguished voice out of my head. It was a mixture of anger, grief and despair. What if it had been my son? What if it had been your son or daughter?

Richard met the enemy straight on. “They talk about gun rights but what about Chris’s right to live? When will this insanity stop? ” After receiving phone calls from California politicians, he exclaimed, “I don’t care about your sympathy. Go to work and do something!”

Yes, do something. But I admit, when I was running for office I did not speak up for gun control. I didn’t have the courage. I would today after a series of mass shootings. Time has passed since 1990 when the NRA defeated an incumbent Vermont Congressman, Republican Peter Smith, largely because he came out in favor of gun control. His opponent, Bernie Sanders, gained the support of the NRA. This year, Burlington voters overwhelmingly passed common sense gun safety measures but the legislature has steadfastly ignored them.

The words “gun control” continue to paralyze politicians. Any proposal for safety is considered a slippery slope leading to the confiscation of guns. Therefore, the only answer from the NRA and the gun industry that supports it, is to oppose it.

It’s time to rephrase the question - these bills are not a matter of “control” they are a matter of gun safety.

We could begin by supporting legislation requiring safe storage of guns to keep them away from children. A bill in the last legislative session to that effect died without a hearing.

A second common sense step would be background checks - once given weak support by the NRA, but no more. I fully support the right to bear arms for hunting, for sport, but I cannot support access to deadly guns for people who have criminal records, who are guilty of domestic violence, or who are dangerously mentally ill.

To answer Richard Martinez, lawmakers and their constituents will have to relinquish the notion that any form of gun safety legislation will force law abiding citizens to give up their guns. There is no evidence to support that view. But there is evidence that easy access to guns will continue to be a potential threat to all families and a time bomb for family members who are suicidal or mentally ill.

After too many mass vigils like the one that followed the Sandy Hook massacre, we have learned that while sympathy is well meant, it does not lead to action. Courage does. If enough citizens heed a father’s cry, and “do something,” we can protect the safe right to bear arms, and our children’s right “to live.”

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont, and author of "The New Feminist Agenda, Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family," published by Chelsea Green.
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