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Julie Smolyansky Headshot

Health Without Safety?

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May 20, 1988. I was in seventh grade at Old Orchard Junior High School in Skokie, Ill., when a shooter opened fire in an elementary school just five miles away. We were in an affluent, picture-perfect North Shore suburb of Chicago where the schools consistently rank at the top of the nation and safety feels practically entitled. Or so you would think.

On that morning, a mentally ill female shooter (very rare to have a female shooter) wreaked havoc on our community, delivering arsenic-tainted food to her friends, setting fires around town and then entered Hubbard Woods Elementary School with three handguns and shot six kids, one of whom -- an 8-year-old boy named Nick Corwin -- died. She managed to escape and break into a nearby home, where she ultimately killed herself. While the police was on the hunt for the shooter, our school was "on lockdown," a term with which we are now, sadly, all too familiar with.

Horror unfolded all around us, a sense of chaotic fear was felt by the teachers as well as us students, and I can still vividly recall the nightmares I experienced for weeks after. You would think after such tragedy our community experienced, all sorts of changes would have been made from access to guns to how we handle mental health in our country. In reality, it happens every few months now.

Since 1982, there have been 62 mass shootings. Most have been carried out by individuals who legally obtained their weapons, most using rapid-fire military-style assault weapons and most committed by an individual with some form of mental illness. A few years ago, my daughters' babysitter was walking on a brightly lit, rather "safe" street in Chicago, when a mentally ill woman approached her and smashed a glass bottle over her head. Another good friend who works in the mental health field was assaulted with a knife by his delusional client. Thankfully, both survived. Had those perpetrators had the access to a gun, my friends would undoubtedly be dead.

As CEO of a natural foods company, I have been an advocate for health, healthy lifestyle and healthy communities for as long as I can remember. Healthy communities have access to medical care that includes both treatment and prevention; parks, playgrounds and cultural stimulation; access to education and nutritious foods; and the freedom to be safe as we pursue our goals. I'm honored to have been given the opportunity to play a small part in pursuit of these goals, to empower consumers with information and food products that can improve their health and quality of life. But what is the point of healthy lifestyle campaigns to reduce childhood obesity and diabetes, to increase exercise habits, to reduce stress, when we continue to playing Russian Roulette with our safety every single day in the form of fatally lax gun control?

On Friday, December 14, I was in an all-day meeting discussing how we could increase our distribution of healthful food, make it more accessible to more people -- the same day the world saw 20 babies murdered within a few minutes by a young man who some have speculated suffered from a host of mental health challenges. Twelve thousand people are murdered annually in our country as a result of gun violence. Collectively, we think we should be offering services to people with mental health issues, but we don't want to pay for it. Well, guess what? We don't get to have it all. We can't have a proliferation of rapid-fire murder weapons in the hands of an irresponsible people along with limited or no resources for citizens with mental health issues. Clearly, we are failing. And what kind of society do we have if we do not have safety?

I am a firm believer in the idea that what you put out, you get back; that the world is a mirror, reflecting back our values. We put out unhealthy foods, we literally reflect unhealthy citizens suffering from obesity and chronic disease. We put out violence in the media, then act surprised when violence is mirrored back. There are 300 million guns in the United States -- that's roughly one gun for every American, including every child. What do we think is going to happen?

My industry, the food industry is tightly regulated -- to the point where the font size on our label has to meet strict specifications. Not too long ago, I had to destroy 40,000 bottles of perfectly safe-to-consume product because of the lack of a piece of paper upon inspection. I was told it was for safety, even after we proved the product was 100 percent safe and even after we produced the proper paperwork. Most industries, from toy manufactures to car dealers to art supply makers, are required to follow certain guidelines for the safety of our communities. And yet any person can essentially walk into a sporting good store and purchase a semi-automatic weapon that can shoot off 45 rounds in a minute, Rambo-style. How is this acceptable? How is this standard operating procedure for our nation?

Some say people who want to commit an act of violence will find a way to do so. Perhaps that is true, but perhaps we can reduce and mitigate the impact. The shooter in my community had access to three handguns but imagine how much worse the carnage would have been had she used the weapons we have seen most recently in the last four mass shootings.

Like most kids, my two little girls have been afraid of the dark, of a noise, of a bad dream. And like most parents, I have forever reassured them that I will always protect them. Today, we must do what our parents failed to do. We must protect our children. What that looks like will be debated. But one thing I know, we must protect our children. And we must have a sense of urgency so that we never again find ourselves sending teddy bears to a community brought to its knees, or writing eulogies for 6-year-olds.

The Sandy Hook travesty has brought back my nightmares. I was able to forget about them for a little while -- time moves and we get busy with other things -- until it happens again and we are dumbfounded. And then it happens so often that we grow desensitized to it; we shrug our shoulders and say, "It's part of life," "Bad things happen," "What a shame?," without questioning it or thinking maybe life doesn't have to be this way. Why should we accept that violence and fear needs to be part of life, let alone part of trying to get an education or taking part in extracurricular activities like seeing a movie with friends or shopping at a mall? What space is sacred in our communities if not the walls of our elementary schools? Of our places of worship? These are supposed to be the most nurturing, safest places in the world, yet I find myself seriously considering homeschooling my kids to ensure they see tomorrow and the next day.

The NRA has called for the arming of our teachers at every one of our 90,000 schools. What about every shopping center, movie theater, place of employment, house of worship, and street corner? Besides the fact that both Virginia Tech and Columbine both had armed guards, an elementary school where children are met with guns is not the America I want to raise my children in. We deserve better than that. We don't need a bandaid -- we need to get control over a situation that has spun completely out of control.

They say when you have kids, everything changes. It has. During my first school shooting, I was a baby myself. This time around, I have two of my own little babies. And it all just hits too close to home.

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Reasonable Gun Control

1. Required criminal background check for every gun sold in America
2. A nationwide ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines
3. Make gun trafficking a federal crime
4. Close the loop hole on guns purchased at gun shows
5. National database of gun owners
6. A campaign to increase the use of bio metric safes (fingerprint safes) for existing gun owners

If you want to make your voice heard:

  • Contact your state and local legislators. Congress reconvenes on January 3,2013 and tell them you want common sense gun control laws.
  • Sign the petitions at whitehouse.gov and Mayors Against Illegal Guns
  • Like and follow 20 Children, One Million Moms for Gun Control, Brady Campaign, Newtown United
  • Divest any 401k and other investments that include gun manufactures or retail outlets that sell them