Why is it necessary to debate the need for background checks?


The first time I saw a gun was in my grandmother’s attic. The attic was off limits, accessible only by stairs from a second floor bedroom. I had to have been with my father. Amidst boxes and wooden shaft golf clubs, I was struck mainly by two old rifles and a sword — my father’s “trophies” from WWII or so I remember it.

Hunting was common among blue collar workers in the small W. Pennsylvania steel town of my youth. Railroad and steel workers had “camps” which referred to ramshackle cabins to the north where deer hunting and fishing were popular pursuits. The local barber shops displayed racks of “bagged” bucks on display. Our neighbor across the street kept beagles in a kennel and used them to bag a deer one fall.

Guns were what hunters used and my father was not a hunter.

Later, in the wake of JFK’s assassination, I remember Senator Joe Clark calling for gun control legislation. The National Rifle Association reacted promptly and resolutely. Senator Clark was not re-elected and I became aware of the power of the gun lobby.

In the years since, while I’ve been fortunate to live out of harm’s way, gun violence has remained distant, with several exceptions.

Over three decades ago, a one time roommate was shot and killed as he walked home to his W. Berkeley home. Joe was a kind, gregarious counselor. We shared a room as counselors at the group home where we worked and had backpacked in Big Sur. I found comfort in riding his bike the following year or so before it was ripped off.

A little over a year ago, a neighbor was held up at gunpoint across the street. Robbers in hiding met him as he opened his car door, pushed him face down to the street and took off with his wallet and cell phone.

Six months back, a friend’s beloved grandson was shot fatally in the back of the head. Kids in their late teens were messing around with an uncle’s loaded handgun.
I learned this past week that, a former teaching colleague had been struck by random gunfire while driving in Richmond early on Christmas Eve. I think of this warm, dedicated 4th grade teacher whose young son, probably in kindergarten at the time, colored quietly while she prepped her classroom after school. I now pray for her recovery and that of her partner, who was also seriously injured when the car spun out of control.

President Obama is at his forceful and courageous best when he presides at the memorial of the horrendous mass killings that capture the headlines and when he speaks also of the deaths that occur everyday on the streets of Chicago and elsewhere.

Why is it even necessary to debate the need for background checks?

When will be OK to spend federal dollars to study the impact of gun violence?

When will it be time to consider the original intent behind the right to bear arms?

Local efforts to keep guns locked up, to limit large size magazines, and to trace guns found at murder scenes seem meek in the face of the availability of weapons. Yet, these too, take heroic efforts to get enacted.

A Ceasefire walk

The strongest and simplest response to gun violence may be the weekly Ceasefire/ Lifelines to Healing night walks by residents across Oakland through neighborhoods most affected by gun violence. Each Friday night, this “ministry of presence” gives those of us who live largely untouched by gun violence the opportunity to walk these largely peaceful yet vulnerable neighborhoods. Kids on porches shout greetings, pedestrians say hello, and cars honk their blessing. The simple message is: we care and we want the violence to stop.
To find out more, call 510-639-1440 or email fridaycommunitynightwalks@gmail.com.

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Bill Joyce is a retired Berkeley teacher and 2016 alumnus of Oakland Voices.

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