I was one of the few non-NRA members to attend a panel on “Guns and Public Safety” in Glenview, Illinois earlier this month. By the time I arrived, the auditorium was already packed to capacity. The Illinois Rifle Association had alerted its members to what they labeled as a “gun-grabber” meeting and they turned out in full force. I was allowed in because I was there to distribute a flyer on behalf of the One Million Moms For Gun Control.
I was there because I am a mother. Like many Americans, the tragedy at Sandy Hook rocked me to my core. I am also a pediatrician who sees too many children enveloped by an inescapable culture of violence. It is in their neighborhoods and in their homes. These experiences rob them of a bright future and take away the one thing that sustains all of us through adversity: hope. So I went to hear the stories of victims’ family members, Bill and Jennifer Jenkins, and learn what has helped them cope.
Shortly after the program began, the crowd began to heckle often making it impossible to hear what was being said. The event, as I understood it, was to present the experiences of two people who lost family members to gun violence, a primer on gun-related injuries and fatalities presented by the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, and finally, information about a group opposed to a concealed carry law in Illinois.
Although there was time for a question-and-answer period after the formal program, this was not billed as a debate. However, shortly after the first speaker was introduced, the shouting began. Aside from the emotionally powerful stories of the victim’s’ family members, it’s hard for me to remember the specifics of what anyone said because of the yelling and jeering. A group of men standing next to me laughed and joked about the terminology used by Linda Jenkins as she described the cold-blooded murder of her pregnant sister. Horrified by their response, I shushed them. One of the men leaned over and angrily said, inches from my ear, “Don’t shush me! And I saw them let you in after the doors were closed, so you shouldn’t be in here anyway.”
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Throughout the hour-long presentation, the crowd didn’t let up. Their tempers seemed to become more volatile as the program went on. It didn’t take me long to figure out that they weren’t there for a debate. They were there to suffocate a discussion about common sense gun control solutions. Even the benign suggestion by Bill Jenkins to restore funding to the Centers for Disease Control for research about firearm injuries was shouted down. I also wanted to learn about efforts to oppose a concealed carry law in Illinois. But the meeting had devolved so much by this point that it was not possible. I left feeling discouraged.
It’s a shame that the NRA/IRA chose to engage in intimidation and boorish behavior instead of listening to the other side. A thriving democracy depends on everyone feeling empowered to participate, not just a vocal few. The behavior by these ambassadors for the NRA has undermined my confidence that the majority of its members are rational, responsible and respectful.
I am hoping that my experience was an anomaly. I am hoping that the rational, responsible, and respectful membership of the NRA stands up and sets an example for its national and regional leadership on how to engage in civilized discourse. A recent Gallup Poll found that an overwhelming majority of Americans supported universal background checks and increased government spending on mental health programs for young people. It is clear to me now, that if we are to see any meaningful changes such as these then we need follow the NRA’s lead. We need to organize, speak up and show up in full force.