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Sanjeev K. Sriram Headshot

Lessons From Oak Creek's Youngest First Responders

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ABC News
ABC News

While I do not know Amanat Singh and her family personally, I can assume none of them expected to face a heinous crime and devastating tragedy when they visited the Oak Creek gurdwara on the morning of August 5. Many of us have learned that Amanat's family was celebrating her ninth birthday. As family and friends prepared lunch, Amanat's parents made a quick trip to the store for more paper plates. Before they left, her mom and dad told Amanat and her 11-year-old brother, Abhay, to stay in the gurdwara under the watch of friends. Being children, they wanted some fresh air. They were playing outside when Wade Michael Page arrived at the gurdwara, descended from his car, and launched his shooting rampage.

Immediately, Amanat and Abhay ran back into the gurdwara and warned whomever they could. After adults helped the two children hide in a pantry, Amanat and Abhay sent text messages to family members, warning them to stay safe. Members of the gurdwara have told the press that Amanat and Abhay were able to warn over a dozen people, preventing injuries and saving lives.

There are important lessons for all of us to learn from the children's heroic response to the gun crisis, a problem that feels epidemic across the country. In 2008 and 2009, there were 5,740 children killed by guns. Regardless of whether they died in such individual acts of rage or vigilantism, by suicide, or from accidents caused by defective weapons, we are clearly failing to protect our children from guns. We are overdue in responding to this uniquely American problem, but Amanat and Abhay are role models to follow: they acted with courage, common sense, and with commitment to their community.

When Wade Michael Page started firing at turbaned individuals at the gurdwara, it would have been understandable for two children to run away from the madness. But instead, Amanat and Abhay responded with a bravery that is sadly lacking in many of our political leaders. Several days after the movie theater rampage in Colorado, Governor John Hickenlooper seemed unwilling to revisit the state's gun laws. But he was hardly alone: Governor Chris Christie and Governor Mitt Romney joined in the "now is not the time to discuss gun policies" chorus line. And although President Obama has called for reinstating the Assault Weapons Ban, the administration has acknowledged that it will not push hard for the ban because of the political concerns surrounding an election year.

Fortunately, some political leaders have the courage not to shy away from the issue. I appreciate Mayor Michael Bloomberg's calling on the presidential candidates to express clearer positions on gun policy. Despite it being an election year, Aurora's own Congressman Ed Perlmutter, along with Congresswomen Diana DeGette and Carolyn McCarthy, are working to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines. To move these efforts forward, all of us must tell Congress to find the courage to stand up to the gun lobby (made up of mostly the National Rifle Association, the Gun Owners of America, and the Safari Club International), which altogether has spent $20 million since 2009 to block common-sense gun policies from being passed.

Common sense, whether used by Amanat and Abhay, by policymakers, or by the voting public, saves lives. As Americans we should all support common-sense gun policies that protect all of us, regardless of whether we own a gun or not. Before it expired in 2004, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban prohibited the manufacture and sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines and almost 20 different types of semi-automatic military style weapons for civilian use. Such ammunition magazines were used at Virginia Tech in 2007, in Tucson in 2011, in Aurora last month, and in Oak Creek earlier this month. Congress must have the common sense to keep military-style weapons out of our neighborhoods.

Another commonsense gun policy we have yet to enact into law is a requirement that all gun dealers do criminal background checks on anyone trying to buy a gun. Currently, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act requires gun dealers with a federal license to conduct a background check on each sale. As important as this law has been, there is a significant loophole: unlicensed gun dealers can sell weapons to their customers without doing background checks. Given that such sales account for over 40 percent of all guns sold in America, we are overdue in using our common sense to close the "gun show loophole."

Perhaps what made it easier for Amanat and Abhay to use common sense and courage on August 5 was their deep commitment to the community they love. The children cared enough about their friends and the other congregants to take tremendous personal risks and to act heroically. Why is it so hard for our political leaders to demonstrate a similar level of commitment? What needs to happen? Apparently, it matters not that in 2008 and 2009, there were 5,740 children killed by guns. According to a Children's Defense Fund report from this past March, this number exceeds the death count of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan (5,013 military personnel had died at the time the report was published). In the same two-year time period, there were 34,387 children who suffered from non-fatal gun injuries. That's the equivalent of one gun injury every 31 minutes. If Bumbo International Trust is willing to take action and recall 4 million Bumbo Baby Seats after fewer than 100 incidents of infants being injured since 2007, then Congress must demonstrate similar commitment to our children.

We often evaluate the heroic first responders in crises like the one at Oak Creek, and we speculate about what elements of their training and which aspects of their personalities guided their decisions and actions. The lessons we extract hopefully will guide us in preventing another senseless tragedy. The heroic actions of Amanat and Abhay are worthy of similar speculation, and it is my ardent hope that all of us as Americans can deploy their courage, common sense, and commitment to community to reexamine gun policy in our country.