It's not every day that an assignment becomes a campaign.
That's exactly what happened last month in my American Government course. We have been working on various public policy issues -- immigration, energy, gun control, etc. During one of our last meetings before spring break, I asked the students to come up with a public event or demonstration related to their issue area. It was supposed to be just a hypothetical activity. But the idea that the gun control group came up with was so simple and perfect that we had to do it.
Our goal is to collect 100,000 straws -- one for each incidence of gun violence in the U.S. every year -- in support of gun control legislation. And on Dec. 14, 2013, the one-year anniversary of Newtown, we're going to take the straws to Washington and deliver them to Congress.
We are only 17 miles away from Newtown. It didn't happen on our campus, but it has affected our community. Almost everyone at the University knows someone or knows someone who knows someone who has been personally impacted by the massacre.
Jennifer Radatovich, a freshman from Newtown, lost someone close to her. One of the boys killed that morning was a neighbor of hers -- someone she used to babysit. "He was like a little brother to me," she explained. Her parents initially urged her to stay in my course, but it proved to be too much and she had to withdraw. The thought of spending the next four months discussing gun violence was more than she could stand. But now she is excited about getting involved with the campaign.
Without question, 100,000 is a lot of straws. We have no idea if we can do it or how it will look when we do. But 100,000 is also a lot of gun violence.
It's estimated that 43 percent of homes with kids and guns have at least one firearm that is unlocked. One study, in Pediatrics, found that 30 percent of boys aged 8 to 12 who found a handgun pulled the trigger. The result is that 3,164 children are shot accidentally every year.
All in all, 270 Americans are shot every day by firearms. Of that number, 83 are killed -- and eight of them are children. That means that in the months since Newtown, there have been 42 more Newtowns. And by the time the one-year anniversary rolls around, nearly 2,820 more children will have died, and there will have been 140 Newtowns.
We're going to do what we can do to keep everyone on campus, in our state and around the country talking about Newtown and about gun violence.
For its part, Congress is busy doing anything but its job. The assault weapons ban, which a solid majority supports, has been stripped from the bill in the Senate. Background checks, which over 90 percent of the country supports, might be the next to go. And by the time the bill comes to a vote, if a bill ever comes to a vote, it might end up actually being pro-gun.
It has certainly been a political education.
It's true that no single change will stop every incident of gun violence. But that's a call to do more, not less. Gun rights and gun control are not mutually exclusive positions.
There have been instances where the ignorance and intolerance that so often passes for politics has spilled over into my classrooms. But I'm happy to report that today's young people are far brighter, more active and more engaged than what is often said of them.
I confess to being troubled about the direction of the country. We are faced with big challenges, and Congress seems more interested in inventing pseudo-crises than solving real ones. But if my students are any indication of the quality of the next generation, there is good reason to be hopeful.
In the meantime, send us your straws. And make your straw the last straw!
Steven Michels is an associate professor of political science at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
Follow the Last Straw Campaign on Facebook (TheLastStrawCampaign) and on Twitter @StrawCampaign. And mail your straws to: The Last Straw Campaign, Sacred Heart University, 5151 Park Ave., Fairfield, CT 06825.
Follow Steven Michels on Twitter: www.twitter.com/StrawCampaign