NOTE: I initially wrote this letter to my Congressman, Jim Himes, following the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and during Senator Murphy’s filibuster. Unsurprisingly, it’s still relevant.
Dear members of Congress,
Do you remember your first?
I do. I was in eighth grade. Not even 13 years old. I was confused, scared, angry... I didn’t know how to process it.
There were meetings about what happened, trying to help us make sense of it all. Attempting to quell the brewing fear that what happened at a high school in Colorado could happen anywhere. There was so much blame then, so much confusion. I remember things like the “trenchcoat mafia” or “violence in video games.” I remember talk of bullying and targeting people because they were different. I remember the layout of our school library changing because the cubicles resembled the ones at Columbine. I’ll never forget my first.
I am now 32 years old and mass shootings have become routine. They have become a regular occurrence in American life and they are all starting to look so similar that when they actually happen there’s a pattern. It doesn’t matter if it’s some mentally disturbed individual, a disgruntled individual or an Islamic State sympathizer - they all fit a pattern.
I am a son. I am a brother. I am a husband. I am a father. I am a proud American. I do not hide being an independent voter of a liberal and pragmatic mindset. I believe in what America is supposed to stand for. I believe in a lofty ideal that America can be a place for everyone. I want to believe that we can come together as one and find common ground, rather than being afraid of things and feelings we don’t understand.
What do you know about fear? I’m sure many of you have experienced it in some form or another. I lead what can be classified as a decent - even privileged - life, but let me tell you about my fear.
Every time I go to the movies, I look for an escape route. Every time my wife leaves in the morning for her job as a school social worker, I worry if that’s the day someone opens fire. I have three small children who are growing up too fast - I’m sure you can relate -and soon I will have to worry about leaving them at school, hoping no one brings a gun. I work for a high-profile entertainment company that has been the subject of threats before, and I openly talk with co-workers about how we’d handle a shooter situation - especially since some of us are in the line of fire through a glass door. Is that a bit cynical? Sure, but this is the society that you have helped foster. These days I have to fear for all my friends, acquaintances and loved ones no matter where they are because someone might start shooting.
I create comic books as a hobby, passion and moonlighting job. Our community is tight, our fans are passionate, and sometimes those fans get upset over storylines and send death threats to creators over social media. America is allowing a culture where now I fear it’s only a matter of time before there’s an incident at a comic convention or some other event - much like the tragedy that befell “The Voice” contestant Christina Grimmie.
Some folks will pound their chests about their misinterpretation of the Second Amendment and carrying a firearm. They often claim that when the shooting starts, somehow in the chaos and confusion they will be left standing. Or that their pistols and “quick-thinking” will somehow overcome a determined killer often wielding an assault rifle. Open-carry supporters somehow think that carrying an assault rifle of their own will stop a gunman in his tracks, but they never stop to consider collateral damage or for some, the military training required to assess that type of combat scenario.
Critics will say to me “carry a gun.” And to that I simply say, “I shouldn’t have to.” Some say, “you don’t understand gun safety.” Actually, I do, but I still don’t think civilians should have access to certain types of guns. I shouldn’t have to worry about going to see a movie, going to work or sending my family to school because someone decides it’s time to start shooting.
I have many friends in the military; of course I worry for their safety in combat and at war - that comes with the territory. But me, my wife, my children, my co-workers ... we are not in combat or at war. No one’s right to own a gun should trump another person’s right to live their life and feel safe at home or work or in any other public place.
I understand some of my fellow Americans’ desire to own firearms. There are many hunters and sportsmen in my family. I have friends that do actually appreciate the machinery of firearms. Although I did not serve, I am a supporter of the military and a writer of military fiction - I research these weapons heavily - I can appreciate many of these feelings and passions. I also understand the havoc which they are capable of bringing. With that in mind, I understand that in order for anything to really be accomplished, compromises must be made.
Yet when twenty children under the age of 10 were massacred by a high-powered, military-grade rifle less than an hour from my home, I thought our leaders would be so appalled that we’d see some kind of reform. Alas, nothing. No laws passed. Reform was barely considered. Children were ferociously gunned down in an elementary school - ripped apart by 154 bullets in 5 minutes - and the Congress of the United States of America did nothing about it.
You went on your recesses, you collected your lobby money and you failed in your solemn charge to fight for the American people. Many Republicans bent to the will of the NRA, choosing to protect them over the very people you are meant to serve. That’s why when many of you offer thoughts and prayers, I cheer for journalist Igor Volsky as he tweets how much money the NRA gives you. Shame.
When Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City federal building, he made a bomb out of fertilizer. The government now tracks fertilizer purchases and you cannot park close to a federal building. When the 9/11 hijackers used boxcutters to take over the planes, the government banned boxcutters on flights. Shortly thereafter, we all started taking our shoes off at the airport, you cannot go to the gate without a ticket, and you cannot take liquids on a plane. But when a gunman murders innocent men, women and children, you do nothing.
You offer thoughts and prayers and moments of silence... Silence.
You offer silence. No compromises, no solutions. Silence.
I stand with my Congressman Jim Himes in condemning your silence and demanding your action.
If even one American life is at risk because of someone obtaining an AR-15-style rifle - or whatever firearm - and using that weapon, then it’s your job to find ways to prevent that. If it means limiting the types of firearms someone can own; Limit them. If that means adding extra layers to ownership and background checks; add them. If that means tougher restrictions on who can own a firearm; restrict them. If it means banning certain weapons considered “military-grade” or “assault rifles”; Ban them. It may be meaningless in the long run, but it will show a numb and bullet-ridden American populous you’re doing something.
What are you going to do to prevent someone like the Orlando shooter - who had previously been investigated by the FBI - from obtaining firearms like AR-15-styled weapons or any other guns? Republicans did not pass a bill after the shooting in San Bernardino that could have prevented this. The blood is on your hands.
What are you going to do to prevent mentally disturbed people like the Newtown shooter from obtaining or being near firearms? What are you going to do to help curb the violence in cities like Chicago? What are you going to do to prevent young rising stars like Christina Grimmie from being shot at an autograph signing? What are you going to do? We’ve been asking this for a long time. Are you still going to be complacent in these murders? Are you still going to idly stand by as these acts of terrorism take place?
There’s a second issue being drowned out in the calls for gun control. This nation has a long history of marginalizing entire groups of people. There’s nothing more un-American, yet its part of our DNA. The shooting in Orlando occurred at a gay nightclub. As we’ve learned and the FBI has confirmed, the shooter was not an agent of the Islamic State, it’s not even clear he was a serious sympathizer, but many of you still jumped on that narrative to deflect your own complacency. The Islamic State of course claimed responsibility; anyone who does five minutes of research understands the propaganda value of such a claim. Furthermore, Republicans have flagrantly allowed their presumptive candidate for President to openly suggest the sitting President is somehow tied to the shooting or an ISIS sympathizer himself. But none of that has panned out, and you - especially Republicans - are now faced with standing with and for a group of people whose rights who have so vehemently tried to deny.
Republican treatment of the LGBT community has paved the way for this kind of attack. Instead of equal American citizens, you treat the LGBT as second class. You’ve tried to deny their basic rights to love and marry one another, their rights to have children together, their rights to shop wherever they want, their rights to donate blood to help their fellow citizens and most recently, where they can use the bathroom.
Now 49 people are dead because a homophobic man was fed by the fear and bigotry you have helped cultivate. There are reports that the shooter was possibly gay himself, so perhaps his new status as a second-class citizen in the eyes of many American lawmakers - especially in Florida - was unacceptable to him. Perhaps he decided blame others like him and to take it out on unsuspecting people who were simply dancing and enjoying their lives. It seems he was a troubled man, it’s possible he felt second-class himself and he was looking for acceptance among the LGBT community, thinking he may have had something in common. We may never know, the point is Republicans especially do not treat the voting, tax-paying LGBT community as equals. I have many friends who identify with this community, they are my equals. They are my brothers, they are my sisters, they are my fellow Americans.
Why? Why do we have to treat any American as a second-class citizen? If it’s not the African-American or Latino communities, then it’s women. If it’s not women, then it’s the LGBT community. Is it religion? It shouldn’t be, the First Amendment doesn’t allow you to make laws respecting an establishment of religion. I know them all well but I personally don’t follow a religion. That is by my own choice. As an American, I prefer the law of this land to be determined in-line with our Constitution, not some politician’s stubborn religious beliefs.
And if it isn’t the LGBT community, it’s the Muslim community. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be Muslim in America. Being forced to face hatred and bigotry because a very small percentage of people bastardize your religion is wrong. Seeing as how the Orlando shooter was a Muslim, it’s plausible that based on Republican rhetoric, he viewed himself as even less than second-class. But many Americans, especially Republican, fear what they can’t comprehend. Fear what they refuse to learn about or understand. Many follow what their leaders in Congress convey and what their presumptive nominee openly targets in a fashion that resembles the way Hitler went after the Jewish.
When are we going to understand each other as the diverse Americans we are and always have been, instead of fearing and hating each other for being different?
That leaves me with only one question... who are we?
My father’s father passed away when I was 10. I didn’t know much about his life other than his devout Catholicism, his love of family, his Pittsburgh soul and his unrelenting passion for his alma mater - The University of Notre Dame. I’ve learned more about this son of Irish immigrants over the years. Stories from his eight children and many students of whom he was their principal and football coach help fill in the blanks.
I also know he fought the Nazis. I don’t know many details about his service - according to my father he never really talked about it - but I do know he played football for Notre Dame and he gave it up to go to war. What I do know about my grandfather is that he left his place at an iconic American institution because as he said, “When your country calls, you answer.”
My grandfather, like countless other Americans set aside their personal ambitions, hopes and dreams and left everything behind to do the right thing. They sacrificed themselves to serve as representatives of this nation for the good of the country and the world. No questions asked - they went to go fight for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. That is who we are supposed to be. That is what America is supposed to be about. That is what you, as our representatives, are supposed to do.
Perhaps the story of my grandfather is one in which you can relate. Perhaps it’s even similar - a tale of the fabled greatest generation. Many of us are products of it. There were no cell phones, no Facebook, no Twitter, no twenty-four hour news cycles to mold and tailor the public’s opinion. There were men and women who did the right thing. It may not have always been the popular thing, but when the moral fiber of America was tested, and the world needed America to combat the greatest evil its ever seen, that generation stood together and charged forward.
The moral fiber of America has been tested many times since then. At times we’ve made some mistakes and other times we’ve still managed to do the right thing... together.
And now here we are again, faced with the dilemma of our own convictions. Testing our identity and our commitment to life, liberty, happiness and equality for all. The American people are waiting. We have been waiting.
I remember my first. I’d like to live to see my last.
ADDENDUM: Since I initially wrote this letter in June, there have been many more mass shootings. This includes Dallas where police officers were targeted and gunned down. You did nothing but shift blame and point fingers. Nothing has changed and all I see is Democrats calling for change while Republicans continue to support a demagogue.
Your country is calling, it’s time to answer.
Kevin Powers, An American