Parenting in the Era of Big Gun

The NRA is successfully pushing a spate of troublesome gun laws that put our nation’s children at risk.

Thanks to a new law in my home state of Ohio, concealed carry of firearms is now allowed in daycares. My daughter is four, and I cannot conceive of any reason a loaded gun should be introduced into a squirming, excitable mass of small children at daycare.

The law, Senate Bill 199, dubbed by opponents as the “guns everywhere” bill, dramatically expands the spaces that allow the concealed carry of firearms. Guns may now be left in cars parked within school zones, Ohio employers can no longer ban employees from bringing guns into company parking lots, and concealed carry is now permitted in some government buildings — including some public areas of airports. The law, in addition to authorizing guns in daycares, allows colleges in the state to opt in to concealed carry. While federal gun-free zones still protect primary and secondary school grounds, in daycare and college, at the bookends of a child’s education, firearm advocates here have succeeded in opening the door to guns.

One outlandish gun bill in one state may seem tolerable, but Ohio’s “guns everywhere” bill is part of a wave of pro-gun legislation percolating in state legislatures nationwide. In March, the carry of firearms on public college campuses became law in Arkansas, and similar legislation is the works in Georgia and South Carolina. New Hampshire ratified a “permitless carry” law in February that allows the concealed carry of handguns without a permit, and now Montana and South Dakota are attempting to follow suit. There’s been a ratcheting up of gun bills, a flooding of the gates.

Gun interests are winning at the federal level as well. Already in this new Congress, Republicans have introduced the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2017, which — if passed — would allow Americans with gun licenses to carry their firearms in any state nationwide, creating a licensure system that bows to the lowest common denominator.

The NRA is a well-financed machine that is successfully pushing this troublesome spate of gun laws. Now, with a GOP-controlled Congress and NRA-endorsed president, we may be staring down an NRA heyday, a broadening of access to match the wild gun sales records of recent years.

Consider Ohio as a case study: in the first nine months of 2016, nearly 94,000 concealed carry permits were issued in the state, compared to 72,000 for all of 2015. During the Obama years, background checks for gun sales doubled in Ohio, and many suggest that his (failed) attempts to institute stronger background checks only increased firearm purchases among gun-buyers anticipating heightened restrictions.

Gun deaths beget more guns. There are typically waves of increased gun sales after mass shootings, including spikes in gun sales in southern Ohio after the Pike County murders, and again nationally after the Orlando nightclub shootings. There was an uptick in gun sales before the election in expectation of a Clinton win (and the restrictions she promised), and then in the wake of Trump’s election, despite a general slowdown, gun retailers are reporting a surge in gun sales from minorities who feel threatened.

Interestingly, the rate of American households with guns has decreased in past decades, even as mass shootings have increased. From 2011 to 2014, the rate of mass shootings tripled. In 2014, mass shootings—defined as attacks in which shooter and victims are generally unknown to one another and four or more people are killed—happened on average every 64 days, compared to every 200 days over the previous 29 years.

All of this results in a peculiar, nagging fear that has become part of parenthood for a generation of parents that came of age with Columbine—a growing sense that safe spaces are no longer safe.

Some parents are doubly fearful their children will become the target of a hate crime in a time when xenophobia trickles down from the White House and is internalized by white supremacist gunmen. Other reiterate to their babies that their black lives do matter, while in the same breath teaching them the practical skills for surviving altercations with police. In our country, black men make up about six percent of the population and account for over 40 percent of its homicide deaths.

I know parents who hear the grim reports of plentiful shootings, who wonder how they can keep their kids safe in neighborhoods with violence so frequent that there are, like in some parts of Cincinnati, makeshift networks of community guns hidden in trashcans and tucked behind loose bricks in buildings. A few weeks ago, a night club shooting in Cincinnati—which resulted in one death and 16 injured—created a blip in the headlines. Reporters flew in, speculating about terrorism. When it became clear the shooting was just a result of a garden variety fight-plus-gun, not an orchestrated plot, the story faded to the background.

And then I talk to other mothers, the sort with neat lawns in nice suburbs with low crime rates, who nevertheless fear the mix of isolation, anger and access to assault weapons that could make their kids’ classroom another Sandy Hook. I remember as a younger mother, absorbing that bloody, gruesome slaying of kindergarteners and teachers, and taking to the internet, ricocheting between descriptions of classroom shootings, to theories of what could improve a child’s odds if under attack: tossing one’s backpack, duck and cover, flee. I looked into the eyes of my children, the most precious people in my life, and knew none of it would be enough.

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” said NRA president Wayne LaPierre days after Sandy Hook, and for years this logic has helped soften gun regulations in state legislatures, and created a flimsy ethical shield for lawmakers seeking to derail gun control legislation.

But it’s often not even about good or bad intentions. In recent years, there have been a slew of tragic reports of other young children dying from gunshots, generally not the victims of an assault rifle, but curious toddlers, preschoolers playing pretend with real firearms. Our children are growing up in a time when one person, on average, is shot or killed each week by a toddler. Toddlers between the ages of two and four have the highest risk of shooting themselves; older kids, age 12 to 14 have the highest risk of being shot by a peer.

I often feel powerless to fight the flood of guns our leaders are letting loose into my children’s world, but I do what I can. As soon as Ohio’s “guns everywhere” bill passed, I talked to my daughter’s daycare director, asking for a clear, prominent, firearm ban at all entrances. New signs went up immediately. There are parents across Ohio calling daycare directors demanding the same prohibitions. Daycares do still at least have the option to opt-out of concealed carry. Still, none of it feels like enough.

With their behavior and votes, our lawmakers made it clear who they are willing to hear, just as Congress did after Sandy Hook, defeating expanded background checks and a proposed ban on some semi-automatic weapons. I remember watching tears burn former President Obama’s eyes when he listed all the victims of gunfire over his tenure, from the kids who died at Sandy Hook, those who have died on the streets of Chicago, and in all the shootings in between. I cried too. Too many parents, racked with grief and loss in the years since, have shed far too many tears.

I don’t foresee President Trump weeping empathetically. He’s promised to eliminate gun-free zones around schools, and he supports the erosion of stricter state background checks offered by the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act.

Still, I keep sending my kids out into the world, quietly wondering how much tragedy will be required for our lawmakers to take notice, for the armed minority and the hefty financial backing of the gun lobby to be out-shouted by sensible gun owners and the searing wail of so many American parents.

Sarah Stankorb

Sarah Stankorb is an Ohio-based writer focused on women's issues, politics and religion. Her articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic.com, Salon, CNNMoney and GOOD Magazine, among others.