Rosanne Cash Pleads for Gun Control Reform After Orlando Massacre: 'Are We to Live in Constant Fear?' (Guest Essay)

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Rosanne Cash performs at The Life & Songs of Kris Kristofferson produced by Blackbird Presents at Bridgestone Arena on March 16, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn. 

Rosanne Cash, daughter of the late legend Johnny Cash, is a Grammy Award-winning artist with 11 No. 1 hits on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. Her first chart-topper was “Seven Year Ache,” which was nominated for a Grammy in 1982. Cash has had No. 1 hits on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, Americana/Folk Albums chart and World Albums chart. Her latest album, The River & The Thread, was her highest-charting album yet, peaking at No. 11 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and earning Cash three Grammy Awards. Aside from music, Cash is an author of three books and various essays. The singer-songwriter is also an advocate to end gun violence in the United States through gun-control reform. In October, Cash’s daughter started a petition that called for the reinstatement of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994. Cash posted the petition to her Facebook, actively engaging with her followers on the issue. Below, Cash writes an essay for Billboard about the urgent need for gun control reform following last weekend's Orlando nightclub massacre -- the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

I was on the board of PAX, an organization devoted solely to protecting children from gun violence, for a decade. (PAX has since folded into the Brady Campaign, and they continue to do great work.) I quit the board because I got sick in my soul from the endless parade of parents who had needlessly lost a child because of an unlocked, loaded gun in the house, from homicide or a stray bullet, from a mass shooting or from suicide committed by an impulsive teenager with easy access to firearms. Being immersed in the unspeakable pain of a whole subculture of grieving parents was ultimately more than I could take.


Then, I came within a split second of becoming one of those parents myself. My daughter was held hostage at gunpoint for 20 minutes while two armed criminals robbed the jewelry store where she worked. That was five years ago, and every time there is a mass shooting -- and there have been many in the last five years -- she is re-traumatized. I have written about her experience a few times, and about my passionate belief in stronger gun control, and invariably someone says, "Well, if she’d just had a gun..." And my blood boils. What is the endgame of that? Every single person in this country needs to be armed?

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Schoolchildren, impulsive teenagers, the intoxicated, mail carriers, musicians, hotel maids, actors, store clerks, the elderly? Are we to live in constant fear, when we go to a club or a movie, walk across a campus or attend church? What about my right not to own a gun, or are we to give up democracy and devolve into a military state where the battles are fought on Main Street USA every day? In my daughter’s case she would have had to pull a gun out from under a counter and fire it at a person who was already pointing a gun at her. I don’t think he would have waited.

I spoke at the Million Mom March in 2000, and wrote an article about it for Rolling Stone afterwards. It was a powerful day, and I thought things would change right then. Since then, I have participated in marches, sit-ins, concerts and fundraisers for stricter gun laws and background checks, and so have millions of other people who are profoundly alarmed at the extreme level of gun violence in our country, and at the increase and regularity of mass shootings. Nothing has changed. Nothing. Many people believe, like I do, that there is no place in a civilized society for the military grade assault weapons which are invariably used in mass shootings, and almost everyone believes (whether you love guns or hate them) that a convicted violent criminal, domestic abuser, somebody who is dangerously mentally ill or a would-be terrorist should not be able to buy any kind of gun without (at the very least) a background check. Orlando happened because somebody with hatred in his heart and evil intent had easy access to guns. It was much worse because of the weapon he used. Not a hunting rifle or a handgun -- a military-style, high-capacity-magazine assault weapon, a weapon of mass destruction, easily purchased.

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 expired in 2004. Eight states have had the foresight to retain the ban and about a dozen cities and municipalities, but 42 states and the vast majority of cities do not ban high-capacity-magazine assault weapons. Since 2013, every major city in America, with the exception of Austin, Texas, has had a mass shooting, defined as four or more casualties in a single event. There are thousands and thousands of assault weapons in private hands across America. Go out of your house. Look to your right, look to your left. Someone on your block has an assault weapon. Can you vouch for the mental stability of the owner? No, you can’t. So who should regulate such weapons? The people who sell them for profit? Those are the exact people -- and the only people -- regulating them now. A kind of shadow government exists in the world of gun sales and trafficking, with confounding exemptions from basic rules of civilized society. We have to get a license to drive a car, but not to own a gun. There are child protection laws governing millions of items with potential danger to little children -- everything from car seats to aspirin bottles to curtain cords to Barbie dolls -- but not a single law that would protect a child from a loaded gun.

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At least 750 children have already been killed by guns this year, and most people wildly underestimate the total number of deaths by firearms. From June 2015 to June 2016, there were over 30,000 deaths in the United States from gunfire.

There is a constant static of controlled panic about potential terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and an almost willful refusal to acknowledge the reality: From 2005 to 2015, 71 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. In the same period, 301,797 were killed by gun violence -- about the same number as the population of Pittsburgh. We spend massive amounts of money on defeating terrorism, and it’s money well spent -- I have tremendous respect for the American counterterrorism forces around the world -- but we do nothing to prevent the next mass shooting. And doing nothing is a choice, as President Obama said. The next shooting will come. It’s a matter of time. We live in an echo chamber of violence and hatred, and these shooters attack with both specificity and randomness: a black church, a Planned Parenthood facility, a gay nightclub, a school, a shopping mall, a movie theater, an office building. A home. It will happen and nothing will change, unless we have the courage to change.

The other argument I hear: the problem isn’t guns, it’s mental health. By that logic, no other developed nation has even a fraction of the mental health issues the United States has. Last year’s attack in Paris killed 130 people, which is almost as many as die in France from gun violence in a typical year. Among developed countries, we are by far the leader in deaths by gunfire. Other developed countries have strict laws about gun ownership and the kinds of guns a private citizen can own. We have a bizarre and myopic attachment and skewed interpretation of the Second Amendment. I’m a patriot, and I revere the Constitution. But there is no right without limits, including free speech, and if amendments were immutable, we’d still be under Prohibition. And by the way, your right to own an assault weapon will never supersede my right to see my children grow to adulthood and take their turn at Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

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A more personal argument -- or attack, rather -- that I hear time and time again, when I express my strong views on gun control: "Your father would be ashamed of you." First, it’s great news that so many people can commune with the dead. There are so many questions I’d like answered! It is strange that my dad professed nothing but pride in me for my whole life but has changed his opinion in death. Setting that aside, using my own father as a weapon against me to serve one’s own pernicious agenda is an impressive and singular combination of arrogance and ignorance. Definitive, in fact. I never respond to that insult, but I think it’s time for me to point out that when I was on the Board of Directors of PAX, my father was on the Advisory Board. When he was asked to join, he immediately said "yes." It’s a matter of public record. Look it up. What? You thought he actually shot a man in Reno? He was a gentle, gentle soul and abhorred violence. Art does not always reflect reality.

I can’t bear to hear one more politician say "our thoughts and prayers are with the families." Thoughts and prayers are nice, but meaningless. They just make us feel better about ourselves. Prayer is easy, change is hard. You don’t pray that the brakes on your car get fixed after you hit and kill someone. You don’t pray that your stove stops leaking gas. You don’t pray that the drapery cord around your baby’s neck doesn’t kill her. You don’t pray that your toddler won’t swallow the open bottle of medicine. You don’t pray that the car won’t run through the intersection when you cross the street. You fix the brakes, you turn off the stove, you remove the cord, you put a child-lock on the bottle of medicine, and you erect a stop sign. There is so much unpreventable tragedy and loss in our lives. Gun violence is something we can actually do something about if we are brave enough, and strong enough, and value our American ideals enough to stand up for the protection of our children and our grandchildren and those great-great grandchildren we will never know, but whose safety we also cherish, somewhere deep in our cells and our souls.

What can we do?
 


*We can mobilize. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut just filibustered for 15 hours to get Congress to agree to hear a proposal to take a vote on extended background checks. We need more elected officials with the integrity to speak truth to power. I don’t have that kind of influence, but I do what I can do within my own sphere and profession. I’m part of The Concert to End Gun Violence across America on September 25th. Pablo Casals said "music will save the world." I’m counting on it.

*We can reinstate the assault weapons ban and prevent the sale and possession of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.


*We can close the private sale loophole and require background checks for all gun sales.

*We can close the terror gap and prevent known terror suspects from buying guns.

*We can prohibit convicted stalkers and dating partner abusers from gun possession.


*We can prohibit people convicted of hate crimes from gun possession.

*We can narrow or eliminate the three-day default proceed period that allows gun sales to go through before a background check has been completed.

*We can develop smart technology so that the only person who can fire a gun is the owner.


And we can stop fetishizing weapons of mass destruction and see them for what they are: a device with a single purpose -- to annihilate the most people in the shortest amount of time.


The bodies of the first-graders at Newtown were not just shot, they were torn to shreds. As parents, we can’t bear to imagine that, and we recoil from feeling, even at a great distance, the suffering of the parents of those children. But we cannot afford to recoil. Next time, it might be your child. It was nearly mine.