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Dawn Slegona McDonald Headshot

The Reality of an Accidental Activist

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December 14th is a date that will forever be associated with one of our nation's most tragic gun massacres. It also happens to be my birthday. But not just in the literal sense. Though December 14, 2012 began as a day to celebrate my birth, it ended with another birth of sorts. Dawn Slegona McDonald, the gun reform advocate was born. A few weeks ago I wrote about why I decided to take up this issue in an article entitled "Why This Mom Became An Activist" and I received an overwhelming number of responses from people who said that they too felt they must speak out after the Sandy Hook school shooting. I was in fact not the only gun reform advocate born that day. Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, refers to people like us as "accidental activists." We are moms and dads and other average citizens who were just living our lives until that December day when our eyes were opened - much too late - to the epidemic of gun violence that exists in this country. Our new awareness of this threat to public safety compels us to act and to satisfy an instinct to do something. And though we might not know exactly how to go about it, we are committed to the decision to advocate for stricter gun laws. No matter how long it takes, we plan to see it through to the end.

The end, however, seems very far away right now. The government's failure to make any significant changes in the wake of Sandy Hook has been a major wake-up call. It is a hard pill to swallow to realize that not even the brutal massacre of twenty innocent children can influence our leaders to take action. In the days following the Senate's vote on gun safety measures, including one that would strengthen our loophole ridden background check system, gun reform advocates poured their anger into the shaming of senators through phone calls, emails, tweets and Facebook posts. There was a sense not of defeat, but of a renewed passion for what we know is true and just. But now as the dust settles we are faced with the reality that the struggle for gun reform is most likely going to last for many, many years. It will take multiple election cycles to get legislators who are against gun safety voted out of office. It will take gradual changes to our culture of violent video games, films and toy assault weapons. It will take a major overhaul of our mental health system. And sadly, it will take thousands or even millions of Americans killed by guns -- approximately 33,000 per year and rising. Any major civil rights movement that achieved success took decades of tectonic shifts in public opinion to see real change. It is clear now that making our citizens safer from gun violence is not going to happen immediately. We knew this would be a long haul, and the reality of just how long it will be is finally sinking in.

What does this mean for my fellow accidental activists? For many of us this new foray into political advocacy has not been without its negative consequences. Friends have been lost over differences of opinion. Family lives have been upturned because Mom has a new "job." We've had to learn how to hold space for our activism without allowing it to damage us emotionally - something that is a constant challenge. On a daily basis we willingly and necessarily expose ourselves to information that is very difficult to bear: The gun deaths that are now so common they are not even reported on the news. The new lows the NRA leadership stoops to in order to protect weapons manufacturers - all at the expense of public safety. The disrespect and condescension politicians continue to show families of gun victims. The fear tactics of gun extremists who threaten moms and children at peaceful rallies by showing up with AK-47s strapped to their chests. And of course, the knowledge that while all of this is happening our own children are no safer than they were on December 14, 2012. We were not prepared for the effects our activism would have on our lives. And now it has become our task to determine how we will permanently incorporate this new responsibility into our lives for the next several months, years or even decades.

Some might ask, why not just stop? You gave a good fight, but why not just return to your old lives and leave this gun business alone? The reality is we don't have a choice. We must keep talking, keep demanding, keep pleading for our government to take steps to reduce gun violence. We recognize a gross injustice in our society and we know that turning our back on it would make us as shameful and as culpable as those who have turned a blind eye to discrimination or genocide or domestic abuse. To put it simply, once you are aware, there is no going back. And so we look to the future with trepidation, but also with hope and resolve. We are already on the right side of history. Now history just has to be made.