In 1984, an associate English professor at Suffolk Community College wrote a published letter to The New York Times that began:
“Last Saturday night I drove home drunk or almost certainly that would have been the indication from any breath or blood test that I might have been required to take. I drove home drunk the Saturday before that, too, and the one before that, and the one before that, in what probably amounts to a fairly consistent pattern over the last 25 years, ever since I have been licensed to drive.”
The professor went on to defend this practice as harmless in his experience — and that of everyone he knew. They were all happy drunks who drove home “safely without incident, accident or arrest.”
He wrote this letter after the passage of New York’s tougher penalties for those found guilty of drunk driving, and named the law’s champions: Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Students Against Drunk Driving.
The penalties were working, the professor conceded, but they were nonetheless evidence of the government “resorting to draconian measures” that “severely encroach upon the rights and liberty of the vast majority of New Yorker of all ages who are responsible drivers and who find their life styles threatened by such laws, regulations and practices.”
The letter’s author was on the wrong side of history. His talking points, however, sound eerily familiar if you’ve been paying attention to the NRA and its sycophant in the White House and his Republican enablers. This is why Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, likes to cite that letter in advocating for safer gun laws.
“Back in the early ’80s, the argument about drunk drivers who killed and injured people was, ‘Oh, those people have suffered enough,’” Watts told me in a phone interview earlier this week. “Now, drunk drivers are pariahs.”
This past week, Moms Demand Action held “recess” rallies in every state to pressure members of Congress to pass laws for gun safety. This is not to suggest that gun safety activists are waiting for them to do the right thing.
“Congress is where this work ends,” Watts said, “not where it begins. We have to build momentum, just like MADD did in the 1980s.”
Here in Ohio, we found out just this week that, last March, a first-grader in Morrow County found a loaded 9 mm handgun that belonged to his grandmother, Vicki Nelson, who is the school district’s transportation director. As the Columbus Dispatch reported, Nelson was allowed to carry the weapon because of the district’s new plan to arm administrators and some staff members. She had hidden it behind her desk. Not well, and not responsibly.
Nelson’s young grandchild reportedly pointed the gun at a classmate and said, “Put your hands behind your back your [sic] arrested.” Fortunately, the child did not pull the trigger. This time.
Which brings me to the reason I called Watts. In my discussions with mothers at the Moms Demand Action Cleveland rally, I kept hearing about the need for parents and guardians to ask if there are guns in the house before allowing children to visit other friends’ and relatives’ homes.
I remember those days well as a parent. Few things irritated my kids more, especially once they were teenagers, than my talking to their friends’ parents about firearms in their homes.
That’s our job, Watts said. And we need to normalize this practice.
She offered convincing stats: In the U.S., 13 million households with children under the age of 18 have at least one gun; 4.6 million of these weapons are unsecured, which means they are stored loaded and unlocked. Every year, nearly 260 children under age 18 unintentionally shoot themselves or someone else.
And we’re afraid to ask the question?
Watts offered some tips for those who are uneasy starting this conversation, who wince at the thought of becoming that parent. Start by thinking of it as just one of the things on your list, she said.
We all have rules for our children. Maybe you don’t allow R-rated movies and video games, or your child has a peanut allergy. Mention these other concerns, and then also ask if the family has firearms.
“A lot of times this can be done by text,” Watts said. “We can’t make assumptions. We have to know.”
And then she told me about a mother in Texas who asked a family if there were any guns in the house.
Why, yes, she was told. The gun was stored in a shoebox, under the bed where her child would be sleeping.
Pick up the phone. Be that parent.
Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.