Only Generation Lockdown can resolve America's gun debate

Reuters
Street artist Panzarino prepares a memorial as he writes the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims during the six-month anniversary of the massacre, at Union Square in New York
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Street artist Mark Panzarino, 41, prepares a memorial as he writes the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary …

By Rob Cox

On the website of the Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus there is a statistic worth knowing if you live in Ohio. About 1,100 residents of the Buckeye State lose their lives at the trigger of a firearm every year. That includes homicides, accidental shootings and suicides.

It's also a number that you'd think would be worth knowing if you represented the great state of Ohio in Congress. Yet until April it was not a figure that rolled off the tongue of Senator Rob Portman. Far more astonishing than Portman's ignorance of the number of his constituents killed by guns every year are the circumstances in which this gap in his education was filled. Portman didn't hear it from the hospital, a newspaper or cable news. He learned it from a 13-year-old boy named James Barden.

James had come to Washington with his mother and father and other grieving parents four months after his freckle-faced brother Daniel (who would be eight years old on Friday) was massacred in his first-grade classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School, along with 19 of his classmates and six dedicated educators. These families had come to implore senators to support a bipartisan bill to ensure all gun sales are accompanied by a simple background check.

During the meeting, one of dozens that the Sandy Hook parents held ahead of the April 17 defeat of the legislation, James informed Portman about how many Ohioans are killed every year by bullets. Then, he asked, "Do you think that this legislation could save just a few of those lives?" Portman bowed his head. Tears welled up in his eyes. "Yes, it probably could," he replied. A couple of days later, Portman voted against the bill.

The episode is less revealing of Portman's failings as a human being than it is about extraordinary children like James who have the most at stake in resolving the gun violence debate in our country. Because of what happened in Newtown last December, every American kid traipses through the country's public, private and parochial schools fully aware that their safety is not guaranteed. They are reminded of this fact every time their teachers conduct a lockdown drill. Call them Generation Lockdown.

As a society, every day that our boys and girls strap on their backpacks and hop onto their yellow school buses, we ask ourselves, will they return? When we arrive at the school for parent-teacher conferences, concerts and school plays we are relieved to find the doors locked. We smile into the intercom as we are buzzed in, and wonder if this glass can withstand the velocity of semiautomatic gunfire.

When people hear that I come from Newtown they ask how the kids in our town are coping with what happened. I tell them about what I told my own 13-year-old, Ethan, a few weeks after Portman and 44 of his Senate colleagues voted down a bill that, by some measures, had the support of 90 percent of the American people, including a majority of law-abiding gun owners.

It was the first Saturday in May, just a couple of days after a seventh-grade classmate Ethan had known since kindergarten had hanged himself. The suicide wasn't obviously related to the December 14 massacre. But in a town hardwired by tragedy, it felt like an extension of that horrific day, a reminder that there is no such thing as a quota when it comes to human suffering.

Ethan couldn't sleep. I sat by his bed. "Why can't we just leave Newtown, Dad?" he asked. We had just returned from a spring break vacation in California. "Why can't we just move to Santa Barbara or L.A. and get away from all this?"

I know it is hard, I said. None of what this town is going through is normal. You are dealing with stuff that I'd never seen in 45 years — and that no one should ever see. But it will give you enormous strength and resiliency. You will have known kids who lost a brother or sister, adults who lost a child. You will have seen a community pull together, and people come to the aid of those in deep despair. Your generation of Newtown kids will be unlike any other in history. You will understand why every day is worth celebrating. And you will be in a position to help others.

With every birthday that passes — 26 of them, enough for one every other week — we are reminded of what happened in our town. The kids are, too. They see the colored balloons on street corners and the Facebook postings. And they decide, completely on their own, to wear the favorite colors of the children whose birthdays they should be celebrating: purple when Dylan Hockley turned seven; athletic jerseys for Jack Pinto, and so on.

There is nothing hollow about these gestures. They are the acts of a cohort of children who understand better than most adults that by honoring those whose lives were brutally cut short last December they might stop it from happening again, in another community just like their own — perhaps even in the state of Ohio.

(Rob Cox helped establish Breakingviews in 2000 in London. From 2004 he spearheaded the firm's expansion in the United States and edited its American edition, including the daily Breakingviews columns in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Rob has worked as a financial journalist in London, Milan, New York, Washington, Chicago and Tokyo. Rob graduated from Columbia University’s Journalism School and the University of Vermont. Follow Rob on Twitter @rob1cox)

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