“Dad, Why Do People Own Guns?”

"School shooting" has been a familiar phrase my 11-year-old's whole life.

Days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting, I am still shaken as a parent and disheartened as a human being. I walked into my first-grader’s classroom on Monday to read to the class. Looking at each smiling innocent, it was impossible to begin to imagine the profound illness it would take to walk into such a classroom intent on killing. While we struggle to comprehend this act, we know all too well that in this country we continue to allow easy access to the weapons that facilitate massacre after massacre.

It is hard for any of us to grasp the depth of the pain of this tragedy and the scope of this crime, but I shudder thinking about how our children are coping with the understanding that such horror is possible in our world. I have been able to shield my children from too many hideous headlines in their brief lives, but my eldest—who has never lived a day in her life when the term “school shooting” was not an instantly recognizable phrase for a parent’s nightmare—knew of the day’s awful events in Connecticut.

So, as a father, I had to answer when my 11-year-old asked, “Dad, why do people own guns?”

I responded by talking about hunters and sportsmen, and reminding her that when we enjoyed a memorable vacation on a New Mexico ranch, she was able to attempt target practice with a .22-caliber rifle. I vividly recall her pride when she shot a spray can from 20 yards with an echoing plink. Even though I have no desire to handle firearms and balk at allowing my children to even play with water pistols, I was happy with that experience: my city kids gaining a bit of an appreciation for gun safety and the understanding that guns are certainly not play things.

She considered the memory, then responded, “But why does anyone need a machine gun?”

I certainly had no ready answer to that one.

But, I actually answered that question before she was born in my book, Philadelphia: A New Urban Direction. Considering the idea that ours is a nation that protects the right to bear arms, I put that right in its historical context to call for limits for that entitlement:

When the leaders of the fledgling American nation gathered in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution more than 200 years ago, the arms that the population sought the right to bear were weapons resembling the flintlock musket that weighed approximately nine pounds, measured five feet long, and fired a single round lead ball. When the Second Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1791, the citizenry could sensibly articulate the rationale that, because a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the government should not infringe upon the people’s right to keep and bear arms. Just years earlier, various colonial militias helped General Washington’s Continentals win the Revolutionary War. But today, in an age where handguns are used with devastating killing power by unregulated criminals, and war is waged with weapons that flatten buildings and destroy whole cities, Americans can surely reconcile proper modern gun control with the ideas espoused by the men who drafted the Bill of Rights.”

There is no doubt that we must have a lot more talk and action about the treatment of mental illness and societal dysfunction and everything else that contributes to the tragedies we have witnessed. But, limiting access to killing technology cannot but help reduce the needless, numbing bloodshed, whether it is in the torturous regularity with which it occurs in Philadelphia neighborhoods or the devastating occurrences that somehow continue to shock us nationwide.

Since 1999, I have taken that book off the shelf too many times on horrible days like last Friday to re-read those words and hope that elected leaders and citizens will move to take action and enact meaningful and sensible laws to regulate these weapons of mass destruction. Maybe there will be action this time so I won’t go reaching for the book again anytime soon.