In the aftermath of the tragic massacre of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School, many Newtown residents, including family members of those who were murdered, expressed a common desire to become the source of positive change in our country. Interpretations of this concept so far have included: building stronger communities, promoting acts of kindness and researching the origins of violence, just to name a few. But the primary focus in these first few months, in partnership with state and federal leadership, has been reforming legislation to keep all Americans safer from the epidemic of gun violence.
When the watered-down Toomey-Manchin Bill was defeated in Washington last week, despite a 90 percent approval rating for background checks among Americans and the entreaties of citizens to tighten gun laws -- including Newtown families who lost their family members in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School -- there was a collective gasp from much of the American public as it became clear how little impact our voices and opinions matter on this high profile issue.
Americans asked our leaders something very basic: to help change the fact that we have become ridiculously vulnerable to gun violence, including rapid-fire weapons and bullets designed to cause maximum damage. Every year, the massacres and gun death and injury numbers continue to pile up. We have acquired enough proof to know that we are potential sitting ducks every day and everywhere we go; from houses of worship and grocery stores to city streets and even our college and elementary school classrooms. As long as powerful weapons and large magazines continue to be sold legally to anyone who chooses to avoid a background check, weapons are easily trafficked and cannot be tracked; the carnage will carry on unabated. But in Washington last week, our pleas were turned down. Even after the stricken parents of murdered six-year-olds looked those senators in the eyes.
I've heard many people say that they were not especially politically active until recent tragedies inspired them to raise their awareness. That's not true in my case. I have been following politics since I was a teen. In college, I rallied in Washington and interned for a grassroots organization whose goals reflected my values. As an adult, I follow politics pretty closely, vote consistently and attend town meetings. I sign petitions and make calls to my state and federal representatives.
Now I realize now that I have been naïve because I thought polls mattered. We so often hear the findings of Quinnipiac and Gallup reports on Americans' opinions about important concerns of the day. I always assumed that our elected leaders put stock in these results which have the power to connect them to their constituents' state of mind. But I have been disheartened to learn that our leaders generally pay more attention to the loudest messages that come into their offices, even if they know that these calls and emails are mobilized by highly organized special interest groups. In this way, the true will of the people often gets lost in the shadow of well-funded lobbying organizations.
And yet, far from wasting our efforts in trying to pass gun reforms in Congress, I believe that we actually accomplished something big last week. We conducted a closely watched test of our system and revealed a sad truth about the American government: that a majority of our elected leaders do not represent the people. It was already obvious that the necessity for large campaign donations creates a troubling conflict of interest, and therefore a system that inevitably undermines the representation of its citizens. But for me and many others, I believe that the full extent of our "bought and sold" Congress has finally been put on display in full technicolor.
We have a moral responsibility now to follow through with gun reform by ousting the senators who voted against the expanded background checks bill, and replace them with others who will actually stand up for the overwhelming desires of the people; protecting our fundamental rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For most of us, that includes releasing us from the growing threat of gun violence.
Just as important, it's time for American citizens to hold our government accountable and demand sweeping reform in campaign financing. Following in the footsteps of the 99 Percent Movement, the demand for government to return power to its citizens must continue with renewed conviction in the aftermath of this disappointing round of gun reform. As Harvard professor and founder of Rootstrikers Lawrence Lessig states, "It's time we have a fair fight on the question of reasonable gun regulation in America. And we will only have that fair fight when raising money isn't the single most important issue for every member of Congress."
The community of Newtown, with our devastating firsthand knowledge of gun violence and the resulting push for new laws, truly can be ground zero for dramatic transformation in this country. While last week's Senate vote did not bring about the improvements we tried to achieve, the results of these events have the potential to be the motivator for greater changes in our country than we ever imagined if we join together to address the fundamental causes of our broken system. It's up to all of us to demand a government that truly represents the people and keeps us safe in a multitude of ways. That kind of change would truly fulfill our promise to honor the lives of every person killed by gunfire at Sandy Hook School, and in the entire country.