May has brought with it an emotional rollercoaster for many across America. It has been a month of graduations, guns and “girl power?”
I italicize the word girl because I cringe every time someone uses this phrase to refer to women’s empowerment; and I use the question mark because we’re embroiled in the battle between institutional attacks on women and women announcing their run for elected office all over the country.
With the media’s lack of coverage of the six female White House candidates, it is easy to forget that we’re witnessing the presidential run of the largest number of women in history. Out of sight, out of mind. Perhaps because so much coverage focuses on the women in the freshman class in the House of Representatives.
As I made my way out of my sister’s medical school graduation in Miami last weekend, my cell phone buzzed me with the notification that Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, was running for a seat on the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners. Perhaps my smartphone’s geolocation influenced me getting Miami-focused news. But a rush of hope came through me as the emotions from the keynote given by the medical pioneer Dr. Vivian W. Pinn met with the pride of seeing my sister walk across the stage as she came off the other side with the title of MD next to her name.
My sister, a daughter of Peruvian immigrants, once an ESOL student turned valedictorian of her high school class was now graduating with honors from medical school. I smiled as I observed my proud parents and looked around at the diverse class of newly graduated doctors, when I received the notification about another mother channeling the love for her dear son into pursuing elected office.
Not even three seconds later, I received notifications of the rallies popping up around the country against the abortion bans in Alabama and other states. The combination of these attacks on women with my elated emotions of empowerment and pride paralyzed my mind in that I could not find a way to reconcile the two.
It hit me that this is where America finds itself today – in a constitutional crisis with the undercurrent of women rising all over the nation in response to their pain and mourning of their children; and communities rising against the outrageous presence of guns in our American lives. With the largest number of women ever to serve in Congress, perhaps one of the silver linings of these times of constitutional crisis is the engagement of ordinary folks taking matters into their own hands by running for office.
Two of these newly elected women visited Montgomery County earlier this month.
U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D) of Northern Virginia, representing Sterling and Loudoun counties, visited the Olney Theatre for an intimate conversation on gender and power. Wexton beamed with pride as she shared with the audience that she is a member of the largest wave of women to serve in the House. As she recited every “first” in their demographic to be elected to Congress, it became very clear that the conversation was going to center around the importance of diverse perspectives in the creation of legislation to better serve our country. With a Tina Fey-esque approach to answering questions, Wexton came off incredibly approachable as she credited her ability to get things done to her inability to hold her tongue.
“If you see it, you gotta call it out. Nip it in the bud,” Wexton said when referring to harassment in the work place, lack of women representation and belittling of women.
Another recent visitor was Congresswoman Lucy McBath, who represents Georgia’s 6th District. In 2018, McBath became the first woman of color to represent her district. McBath and her husband buried their teen son Jordan Davis in 2012 when he was shot to death by Michael Dunn, a 45-year-old white male, after an argument over the loud music Jordan and his friends were playing in their car as they found themselves in an unfortunate encounter at a gas station in their neighborhood.
Court documents revealed that a homeless couple witnessed the entire shooting and were able to write down Dunn’s license plate number. Those notes would ultimately lead to Dunn being charged with first-degree murder. The jury did not reach a verdict of guilty in the first trial.
But McBath and her husband did not give up. A year later, a second jury would finally find Dunn guilty of first-degree murder. Jordan Davis’ case was the rare exception in which an unarmed black child’s murderer was actually found guilty of their crimes. It is with that same passion and dedication that McBath ran her campaign and won her congressional seat.
McBath is working closely with Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action to pass legislation to protect communities from gun violence. “The vast majority of Americans support common-sense solutions to address gun violence, and I’m happy that Congress is finally taking meaningful action to prevent future tragedies,” McBath told a crowd of almost 400 people at a gun reform forum organized by Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) in Rockville earlier this month.
The most impactful views expressed at that forum came from young Montgomery County students of color. Nate Tinbite, the newly elected student member of the Montgomery County Board of Education, left a powerful message.
“We, as people, have to register, mobilize, and organize voters in our communities to address the status quo and the many innocent lives taken daily due to gun violence,” he said. “We can do this.”
‘We must continue this momentum for change’
The young voices in the room reminded us of how the conversation about gun violence has been framed without the racial lens it deserves. While the country has been up in arms over school shootings, black and brown communities are viewed with less compassion as they battle gun violence.
An attendee at Trone’s event criticized the leaders in the room for not calling America’s lack of attention to the outrageous number of black lives lost due to guns and armed law enforcement, as proof of the racism we have become complacent about as a society. Another male attendee brought up the issue of toxic masculinity in America and its contribution to the use of guns in our society.
We were reminded that in a span of two weeks three heroes gave their lives to stop shootings around the nation. On April 27, Lori Gilbert-Kaye stepped in front of bullets aimed at Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein at Chabad of Poway in California. On April 30, Riley Howell (21) attempted to stop a gunman on the campus of the University of North Carolina Charlotte where two students were killed and four were wounded. On May 7, Kendrick Castillo (18) lunged at two teenage gunmen to thwart their attack in his classroom at the STEM School Highlands Ranch.
Kendrick was set to graduate days after he was killed. While families at Kendrick’s high school celebrated the graduation of their children. Kendrick’s parents were left to mourn their son’s death as he stepped in to save his peers.
Del. Lesley Lopez (D-Montgomery), survivor of a school shooting, chairs the Gun Legislation Working Group in Annapolis: “Every time I see another school shooting, I think back to my experience in second grade, and know we must continue the momentum for change,” she says. “Gun violence prevention bills save lives. I’m so glad we have a broad coalition of federal, state and community leaders dedicated to making our state safer.”
While these efforts are incredibly important as Maryland continues to push for gun reform, state legislation is not enough to keep our communities protected.
Research has shown that states with stronger gun laws receive more than 50 percent of guns used in crimes committed in that that state from neighboring states with lax laws. While this fact may seem obvious, a deeper analysis helps shape the legislative priorities that states looking to curtail the number of guns in our communities should use.
A study done in 2018 by the Boston School of Public Health showed that the laws with the highest impact on reduced in-state crime guns were (1) laws requiring relinquishing guns when a person becomes disqualified from owning them, which yielded a 4.7 percent reduction, (2) requiring permits to buy a gun, which reduced gun crimes by 3.9 percent and (3) laws prohibiting people convicted of a violent misdemeanor from owning guns, which yielded a 3.2 percent reduction.
Maryland is ranked seventh for toughest gun laws in the country. However, the number of homicides in the City of Baltimore has been steadily on the rise in the past decade. The Baltimore Sun’s tool can be used to track the number of annual homicides back to 2015.
The number of homicides rose this time of year from 98 shootings through May 2015 to a peak of 133 through May 2017 and 114 as of May 20, 2019. The year to date numbers have remained in the 300s and 2019 is on track to surpass the 2017 numbers.
Another tool by the Sun traces the number of out of state guns. The tool reveals that 53 percent of guns used in Maryland crimes were brought from other states. The U.S. average is 29 percent.
Conversely, 47 percent of guns were bought locally, while the U.S. average is 71 percent. We can infer then that while our laws are working to limit access to guns locally, the majority of in-state crimes are still being committed with guns brought from neighboring states with less restrictive gun laws.
With young people stepping in to save the lives of their classmates, families burying their black men and boys, and the current attack on women’s constitutional rights, women are at the forefront of trying to create a less violent America. These women may be the cohort that saves America from its toxic infatuation with guns.
You cannot help but think what will come of Florida now that the legislature recently passed a bill to allow teachers to have guns in schools. Women like Trayvon Martin’s mother running for office in Miami-Dade County will inevitably shift the trajectory of gun legislation, as her peers become acquainted with the loss of an innocent child due to racism and guns.
May more women run as they embrace their “girl power” to allow more of our children to graduate, and save America from its toxic relationship with guns.
The writer is an attorney and former state legislator.