If you were to talk to a doctor or nurse who practiced prior to Roe v. Wade, they could probably tell you stories of women doing incredible harm to themselves in pursuit of an abortion. To put a pop culture face on it, think of the scene in Dirty Dancing when Johnny runs to Penny’s bedside as she’s bleeding and in pain after an illegal abortion that she sought to save her career. Someone describes the scene Penny faced as a guy with a folding table and dirty knife. That kind of story was real and unsafe abortion was the norm before 1973. Women were injured or killed by such procedures. Members of the medical community who saw the aftermath of those back-alley abortions welcomed legal abortion because they knew a hard truth: women will seek abortions no matter what. We can’t stop abortions from happening, we can only make them safer.
I’m rapidly reaching a point of similarly stark pragmatism on the question of guns and gun safety. It is clear that there is no political will to change gun policy in America, at least not anytime soon. There is an entrenched desire to have access to weapons and it is beyond my power to alter. People want to own guns.
That being the case, how can we make gun ownership as safe as possible?
I ask this after reading a story about a woman dying after a toddler took a gun from her purse while they were out shopping and shot her. For anyone who’s ever been shopping with a toddler and been relieved that letting her rummage through your purse keeps her from asking for every piece of candy on the shelves, this story is heart-stopping. We’ve ALL let kids play with our bags. What if that happened to one of us?
Now, lest we fall into a pattern of victim-blaming and start calling out this woman as a careless gun owner or a bad person who failed to think through the responsibility of owning a firearm, let’s stop. I’m going to paint a picture for you, albeit based on no information except some hunches, and I want you to tell me if this doesn’t sound like someone you know:
I bet that she is not a “gun nut” in any sense of the word. Probably, there was some criminal event in her community or she’s close to some person who keeps weapons for protection and suggested she do so as well, so she decided to get a gun. She maybe took a safety course right after she bought it and she keeps it loaded and in her purse without much thought. It’s entirely possible she forgot it was in there on that particular shopping trip. And I bet she’s not that unusual, especially among women who are not part of a larger gun-rights agenda. She’s just a mom who didn’t want to get robbed or raped and thought a gun would help. Moreover, I bet she bought the gun before she had kids and never thought about what it means to have a toddler and gun in the same place.
This isn’t a bad person. She isn’t a bad mother. She isn’t a sinister criminal force. She’s a person who made a series of decisions in her life that led to a sudden and shocking – and utterly underserved – death. No good will come of us tut-tutting about gun safety at her now.
So here’s my question: if people are going to own guns in this sort of passive way, how do we make them safe? There’s no legal or moral reason that this woman should not have had a gun. What could have been done to keep her safe? To keep her kids away from the gun?
My gut instinct is that we need campaigns about safe storage and handling of weapons that go to people. This woman I’m imagining isn’t going to hang out at a gun range on weekends or cruise gun websites learning about the latest safety advances. That’s not where she is and guns probably aren’t an abiding interest for her. What we need is someone to go where she already is – her kids’ school, her doctor’s office, her church, her book club – and say “Don’t forget that childproofing means weapons too.”
Who is out there who can deliver that message? Before you answer that, remember that half your audience won’t listen if the NRA talks and the other half won’t listen if Moms Demand Action talks. The battle lines are too clearly drawn and every existing gun safety stakeholder only has credibility with their own team. But someone needs to be talking. Someone needs to develop “Baby Proofing Your Guns” handouts for pediatricians and someone needs to give a gun safety talk to the PTA and someone needs to go on morning shows and talk about ways to secure weapons the way people talk about using sunscreen in summer. Someone needs to talk to adults about gun safety like they’re adults, not like they’re criminals merely by virtue of owning guns. And people need to listen to them without assuming that the person talking is a jackbooted government gun-grabber.
I don’t have an answer to this, I just know that it has to happen. There are too many stories like the poor mom in Idaho and there shouldn’t be. We can make gun ownership safer. We have to be willing to talk about it instead of just arguing about guns.