Last night I attended a 'Not Backing Down Candlelight Vigil' in Boca Raton, a Taking Action for America event. Held at Sanborne Square Park, it was a short walk from where I was working. It started at 5:30. I arrived a few minutes early.
A lone microphone stood at the center of the stage. Posters displaying photographs of Florida victims of gun violence leaned against folding chairs. Two laborers were napping on a low stone wall, most likely exhausted from a day of trimming hedges and mowing lawns in the brutal heat of a summer day in South Florida.
A dozen people milled around a table set up with magic markers, colorful poster boards and printed material. We were encouraged to make our own signs. Someone made one with a black Sharpie and placed it on a red park bench. It read "Remember Newtown." At another table, people signed petitions, including myself. I've signed so many petitions in my life, my name is definitely on some list somewhere in Washington.
By the time the speakers arrived, there were about 30 of us taking action. I don't know what I expected. After all, this is Florida, the first state to pass the Stand Your Ground law. The state that acquitted George Zimmerman in the murder case of Trayvon Martin. But I was in Palm Beach County, a bastion of Democratic politics in this state and the epicenter of the controversial 2000 election of George W. Bush, when we all learned about butterfly ballots with hanging chads.
First up at the podium was Congressman Ted Deutch (D-FL). He informed us of the depressing statistic that since Stand Your Ground went into law, these types of cases have tripled. Deutch said, "No one is trying to take away people's second amendment rights." People clapped. He called Florida's law the Kill at Will law. Several people waved their signs. The small crowd clapped louder, trying to make some noise. I wished I could do that shrill whistle with my fingers in my mouth that you hear at sporting events.
Next up was Rabbi Barry Silver, dressed casually in jeans, a t-shirt and sneakers. He was feistier. He told the small crowd, the next time one of your representatives takes money from the NRA, send them packing. The next time your Senator votes against a bill banning assault weapons, make an assault on them by voting him or her out of office. The applause grew louder, a few more people passing by the park wandered over to listen: a young family with two small children, an older couple leaving a restaurant.
I worked all day, my husband worked harder painting a house not far from the intracoastal on this hot, sticky, humid day. I needed to get home, make dinner, do some laundry. It's hard to be an activist in America while you're trying to pay the bills, mow the lawn and save for the kids' tuition. That might explain the low attendance. I hoped later in the evening, after the kids were fed, the dishwasher loaded and the errands run, more people would show up for the candlelight vigil. Meanwhile, the NRA is working tirelessly. The 30 people in Sanborne Park last night have no power compared to the powerful gun lobby and the coffers of money they offer the people in Washington, the very same people we pay with our tax dollars to do their job representing us, We the People.
Ninety percent of Americans support background checks. You would think numbers like that could change things. No, not really. In America, money talks, not votes. In New Hampshire, where I lived before moving to Florida, 85% percent of the people support gun control but after the Newtown shootings, when the gun control bill was up for a vote, Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) voted against it. Sig Arms, a large gun manufacturer, is headquartered in New Hampshire. They contribute to her campaign. It seems to me that money talks louder than votes sometimes. It begs the question, who really is running this country?
Later that night, I lay in bed, finishing a book I had been reading. Son of a Gun by Justin St. Germain. It's a riveting memoir of a woman who is murdered by her husband. The woman is the author's mother. A deeply personal story, it also paints a powerful portrait of a country that glamorizes guns and violence. St. Germain grew up in Tombstone, Arizona, the sight of Wyatt Earp's gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Just one of the American folktales glamorizing guns and violence.
Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers died in the gunfight, and they're buried at Boot Hill. Observing the tourists who visit his hometown, St. Germain notes that many snap a picture of the gravesite, then quickly move on, searching for the Earps. His next line haunts me. "Who wants to see the victims?"
Our national attention span is short. We move from one news event to the next at the speed of the news tape running along the bottom of our TV screen. Every time one of these events captures the media spotlight, from Columbine to Newtown to Trayvon Martin, we have what the media call a "national dialogue." But I'm not sure what we're talking about or if anyone's listening. America's kids are headed back to school. On Monday, a troubled young man with a high-powered rifle walked into an elementary school near Atlanta. Luckily, no one was hurt this time. I hoped after Newtown things would be different. I hoped seeing 6-and 7-year-old victims would jolt us into action. I attended the event last night because I haven't forgotten the 20 children who died that day. I also haven't forgotten the boy with the Skittles and the Arizona ice tea.
St. Germain mentions the most common murder scenario in America is a man killing his wife. There is a scene where he attends a support group for the parents of murdered children where everyone is welcome. Just the name of the group gave me a knot in my stomach: Parents of Murdered Children. Think about it. Imagine yourself being that parent. Somewhere in Arizona, there is a room where people who lost a loved one to a gun meet once a month to deal with their grief. This happens all across America, from Newtown, Connecticut to Tucson, Arizona. Murder in America doesn't go away. When the coverage of the big stories goes away and the national dialogue comes to an end once again, the murders in America continue. How many people have been killed by guns since Newtown? Slate magazine has the figure at roughly 21,982 as of August 22, 2013, the day I am writing this piece.
Every time someone is killed in America, someone else loses a father, a child or some other loved one. Justin St. Germain lost his mother and from this tragedy wrote a beautiful book that everyone who is concerned about gun violence in America should read.