June 22, 2018
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Sense and sensibility: Disarming the weapons in our minds

By Janice Cooper, Special to the BDN

Shortly after the massacre of beautiful children and courageous teachers in Newtown, Conn., by rapid fire, maximum-damage bullets, I wrote an OpEd for a small Maine newspaper entitled, “For the love of guns: A mother’s and legislator’s pledge.” Surprisingly, the article went almost viral and clearly touched a nerve.

A number of readers praised my piece. But I also received angry messages from (mostly anonymous) people around the country who think I have no business talking about the Second Amendment.

They make it clear that they view the constitutional right to bear arms as a bulwark against tyranny. It’s their protection not against intruders or black bears (although that might be handy, too) but against the government itself. This was an eye opener. This is certainly not true of all opponents of gun control, but if you were preparing for a revolution, of course you would oppose limits on the kinds of firearms available for sale to private buyers. For those not so inclined, what can you do to stop the arms escalation?

My “pledge” was to keep talking until Americans rethought whether homes should contain the kind of firearms used by Adam Lanza. So here I go again.

My answer is to hone in on our popular culture, attitudes and habits, which have tolerated if not supported the accumulation of millions of firearms in our homes. Most of the attention since Newtown has been on limiting sales and access to certain weapons, ammunition and purchasers. Although such laws might reduce mass shootings, they will have no impact on street crime, suicides, domestic altercations or accidental shootings. Moreover, limiting heavy-duty firearms will be a hard sell in Maine and Congress for both practical (what’s an assault weapon, after all?) and political reasons.

But I believe America after Newtown is a different place, just as it was after 9/11. As a representative in the Maine Legislature, and as a former staff member in Congress, I understand why elected officials want broad public support before moving forward on this controversial issue. I say the sea change in public attitudes has begun. It’s time to stoke the fire, to write to your legislator and to bring on public service ads and public forums for those too complacent to act.

Maine is a good place to start. We have many guns, but aside from domestic violence, it’s a pretty safe place. To bring peace to our homes, schools and streets, we must reverse Americans’ unique tolerance for guns in our everyday life. I’m not talking about repealing the Second Amendment, which the Supreme Court declared creates an individual right to bear arms. Rather, I want more people to look at weapons and think not of their “rights” but of the carnage it has created in our society.

We must ask tough questions of families, friends, neighbors and ourselves. We have to be brave enough to stand up to gun advocates. Do you let your children play in homes where you do not know or ask if a loaded handgun lies in an unlocked nightstand? Do you know if your kids watch video game and movie depictions of bodies being blown up? Have you thought about the possibility that your teenager knows where the key and ammunition to his father’s rifle are in a dark moment and turn the firearm on himself? It happens. Our teen suicide rate is the eighth highest in the nation.

Here are some more sobering statistics: According to the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Policy, the number of firearms in our state equals our population — about 1.3 million. Half of our households have at least one weapon. About half of our gun-related homicides are related to domestic violence. In Maine, 90 percent of violent deaths are suicides. More than half of those suicides are by firearms, and are overwhelmingly by men.

The rate of firearm suicide is much higher in rural areas, where weapons are more common. The lessons I draw from these facts: Mainers use their firearms mostly to kill our loved ones and ourselves — impulsive acts that might not occur if such lethal means were not readily available.

In Maine, we already know how to change long-standing habits of the mind. Thanks to well-crafted public education campaigns, dramatic changes in attitudes about drunk driving, smoking and same-sex relationships occurred in a few short years. Our politicians may not be able or willing to enact limits on the purchase or access to weapons, but we can make our own revolution by starting to think differently about guns.

Maine Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, previously served as assistant counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.

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