From car seats to college: keeping our children safe in a dangerous world

Update: This story was written shortly after the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Three months later, on February 14, 2108, our country endured one of its most deadly school shootings at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen young souls lost their lives that day and many more were injured.

The day of the Columbine High School mass shooting is forever etched in my memory. Chloe was two days old and we were driving home from St. Joe Med Center with our precious little bundle. She was the fourth and final child God had entrusted to us, and our hearts were full of love and joy and hopes for the future. We had carefully placed her in our new infant seat and drove away from the hospital.

Turning on the radio, we were suddenly shocked into a state of disbelief and utter sadness. While it was common for the news to cover a gang shooting or a thief using a gun during a robbery, mass shootings were not the norm. School shootings involving a mentally ill gunman taking innocent young lives were not typical. For 12 students and a teacher to be laughing, talking and studying one minute, and lying bloody on the library floor the next were not the way things were supposed to be. I silently wondered what kind of hateful, cruel world I was bringing my innocent little baby into. And wasn't it my job to protect her and keep her safe?

As a new parent, I was constantly reminded of that job: Use only safety-approved car seats. Ditch the old crib with slats too far apart. "Back to sleep." Watch out for dangling curtain pull-strings. NEVER leave your child in a hot car. Baby monitors. Cabinet locks. Outlet covers.

Over the years, I began to teach my kids the job of their own safety: Look both ways before crossing the street, kids! Hold Mommy's hand. Fasten your seat belts. Wear your helmets. Here's the fire escape route. Don't eat wild berries or mushrooms. Come to a complete stop. Don't speed. Use your turn signal.

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The 18 1/2 years since Columbine and the birth of our youngest have gone quickly.  My baby is all grown up now and gone to college. Although college is her biggest life adventure yet, she is beginning to feel safe in her new home. And helping her feel safe continues to be my role.

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We are settling in as well. Life in the empty nest is quiet. We enjoy dinners for two. Soft music playing. Quiet, simple, peaceful.

Then we turn on the news, and are shocked back to the reality of our broken world. The reality that at any point in time we, or someone we know and love, might step out of our quiet, peaceful, safe world and into the path of a bullet from a gun held by an angry, vengeful or mentally ill person who can snatch it all away in a split second. Our dreams for retirement, for travel and adventures; our hopes for our children, for their education and careers; our wish that someday we might have grandchildren...all these yearnings hang by a thread in this fragile, unpredictable world we live in.

I realize living in fear is not the answer. But how do we respond? Do we go about our business as if nothing has happened? It seems that after each shooting  I hear how "resilient" we Americans are. "Las Vegas Strong." "Orlando Strong." And our president's words this past week: "...in dark times such as these, Americans do what we do best: we pull together. We join hands. We lock arms. And through the tears and the sadness, we stand strong."

But are we really strong? What does that mean anyway? Does "strong" mean that after we watch the news with mouths agape we go back to making dinner? After uttering some prayers for the families we enjoy a normal conversation about our day? After sending a donation, we go back to life as usual? Or does being "strong" and moving on simply show that we have become desensitized to the violence that has become so commonplace?

On April 20, 1999, 13 people lost their lives at Columbine. Since then there have been eight more mass shootings that have killed as many or more, moving Columbine down to 10th place for deadliest shootings. That doesn't seem that shocking over 18.5 years, until you realize that four out of the top five have happened in the past five years, three out of the top five in the past two years, and two of those top five in the past two months. To put the numbers in perspective, the three most deadly shootings in the past two years (Orlando, Las Vegas, and now Sutherland Springs) have taken 133 lives...ten times the number that died that day at Columbine.

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The shocking statistics are everywhere. We just read them and shake our heads. We promise our thoughts and prayers. And many of us are praying for those families torn apart in Texas. But how many of us are still praying for those lives damaged by the Las Vegas shooting? The Orlando shooting? Sandy Hook? Columbine? And so on, and so on, and so on...

It's easy for us to go back to our quiet, peaceful lives and forget that the hurt is still so very real for every childless parent and parentless child, each widow and widower, each lonely friend that has been affected in these senseless shootings.

This week's newscasts describe the victims at Sutherland Springs Baptist. From the extended family that lost eight of its members to the pastor's daughter...from the 77-year-old to the 18-month old toddler. Nearly half of the victims were children. Children who will never go to college. Whose parents will never see their dreams fulfilled. Children who were watched over and protected at every turn, who held their mama's hand while crossing the street, but who didn't stand a chance against an assault rifle. Will those parents ever stop wondering what they could have done to make this world a safer place for their children?

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Doing nothing is not an option. Shaking our heads is not an option. Thinking and praying for a day or two...is not an option. I know some feel the need to own a gun to protect themselves and their loved ones, and I do not argue with that right. But this is not an option for me. Taking a life is not a burden I could live with.

By the same token, bringing life into this world is a huge responsibility.  We owe it to our children (and their children) to do whatever we can to make this world a safe place. I'm pretty sure that's what our forefathers had in mind too when they wrote the 2nd amendment, and I'm pretty sure they'd be appalled at how their words have been twisted and misinterpreted as a means to allow guns which senselessly take the lives of our innocent children. Guns capable of mass murder in minutes which did not even exist when the amendment was written.

So what can we do? In very concrete ways parents do have an important role to play. We can begin by teaching our children that guns are not toys. We can steer our young kids away from violent video games and movies. For those who do own guns, keeping them locked up and being trained in how to use them safely is a must. We can talk to our children about suicide, and seek help for our kids when they're experiencing difficulties or mental health issues.

We can also protect our kids in more indirect ways. I suggest we speak up, argue and show support for common sense gun laws. Use social media. Share the facts. Talk to family and friends. Go to church on Sunday and pray for peace in our land. Pray for a miracle, a change. Call our senators and congressmen and women. Sign petitions on Change.org and support gun control organizations like Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action, and others. Donate to these groups that attempt to make real change at the state and national level.

It may not seem like much, but every little act will add up. And maybe, just maybe, hearts will be changed. Laws will be changed. And our country will be changed.

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