Guest Commentary

Guest commentary: A letter to Congress after the shooting

Members of Congress involved in last week’s shooting have joined the ranks of a growing number of Americans who know how it feels to fear for their lives during a shooting rampage, writes guest commentator Andrew Johnson.
Members of Congress involved in last week’s shooting have joined the ranks of a growing number of Americans who know how it feels to fear for their lives during a shooting rampage, writes guest commentator Andrew Johnson. The Associated Press

Dear Members of Congress:

In the wake of the Virginia shooting that nearly took the lives of several congressmen, many of you are now calling for increased personal security. What you saw on the baseball field on Wednesday was horrific. A lone gunman nearly massacred a group of public servants in broad daylight. After such a traumatic experience, it is entirely reasonable that you want to reduce the likelihood of future tragedies by increasing your own security. I can relate because I know what it is like to fear for my life at a baseball practice.

Last summer, I was helping coach my son’s T-ball team. We were in a park in the middle of a neighborhood. Four fathers and a dozen kids, just playing baseball on a hot evening in late June. That’s when I heard fireworks from the other side of the park.

Only it wasn’t fireworks. I saw a man on his front porch, shooting his gun at a speeding truck. Another man stood in the bed of the moving truck, firing back. The men kept firing as the truck drove around the park where our children played. We fathers scooped up our kids, ducked and ran with them toward our cars. Thankfully, no one was physically hurt. But my son held my hand tightly all the way home.

Right now, I’m not that interested in discussing gun control. Those words now seem to elicit such visceral responses from both ends of the political spectrum that the phrase’s meaning has been rendered useless in public discourse. When two words immediately shut down the hope of finding a solution, it seems there is a need for better common language. I hope we can find it.

You now share something in common with an increasingly large percentage of the American people: exposure to public violence. Your swift call for increased personal security for elected officials is not that different from the swift actions we fathers took on the baseball field: When danger approaches, you act quickly to protect yourself and those close to you. This is especially the case when you feel exposed and defenseless, such as in an inescapable dugout or an open public park. So it is not entirely unreasonable that you believe increased security is a good solution. It is the rationale behind a school district in Kansas that despite facing budget cuts found the funding to provide semi-automatic rifles to its security staff.

This is what living in fear feels like. This is what living in America feels like.

I do not ask for gun restrictions. Apparently that conversation gets us nowhere. Apparently it does not matter how many worried mothers call your offices pleading for better legislation. It does not matter how many kids are killed in our schools — kids such as Jonathan Martinez, who was shot and killed as he tried to hide behind his teacher in his special education classroom in California two months ago.

I ask that you consider this spectrum of trauma we now live in: From the most powerful members of Congress enjoying a game of baseball, to the most vulnerable children clinging to their teachers and parents, we now see how deeply the tendrils of violence have crept into every corner of our nation. You now stand alongside the rest of us in our knowledge that this violence, like a weed or a virus, by its very nature seeks to spread its devastation until it has been exhausted.

I no longer know how to ask for solutions from you. I no longer have high hopes that you have our children’s future in mind — the evidence to the contrary is too great. I no longer know what it is that you do exactly.

But we now share one more thing in common: a greater collective understanding of what unbridled public violence is doing to the soul of our country. I ask that you sit in the grief of the knowledge that this is who we have become. No excuses. No blame. No bargaining. Please sit with the rest of us in this awful knowledge that we treat our lives with such disregard. Only by deepening our understanding of what we have become we can re-imagine what it is we want to be and then take the first courageous steps to cross the distance between.

Andrew Johnson is the director of Pilgrim Center in Kansas City.