Tim Wood: Students Lead The Way

Harwich resident Kathleen Healy sings at Saturday's March For Our Lives in Hyannis. TIM WOOD PHOTO

We are fortunate. We live in a state that has strong gun laws and ranks first in the nation in terms of gun safety and death rate by guns.

There hasn't been a mass shooting here since 2000, when seven people were killed at Edgewater Technology in Wakefield. One of the weapons used in that incident was a variant of an AK-47 assault rifle.

In 2004, when the U.S. Congress allowed an assault weapons ban put in place in 1994 to expire, Massachusetts passed its own ban under Republican Governor Mitt Romney. The legislation also prohibited high-capacity magazines. Massachusetts is one of only seven states – California, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Maryland, New Jersey and New York are the others – with bans on semi-automatic weapons in place. All of those locations, except Washington, D.C,, are among the 10 states with the nation's lowest gun death rates. If Massachusetts' gun death rate were repeated in the other 49 states, 27,000 lives would be saved annually, according to a recent Boston Globe analysis.

See the correlation yet? Here's more:

From 1984 to 1994, there were 19 mass shootings in the United States in which 155 people were killed. For the 10 years that the assault weapons ban was in place, there were 12 mass shootings, killing 89. From 2004 to 2014, after the ban was lifted, there were 34 mass shootings in which 302 people died. Since 2014, there have been nearly 180 deaths in mass shootings, all of which involved semi-automatic weapons.

If memory serves, no other rights were taken away from Americans during the 10 years that the assault weapon ban was in place. Thus falls one of the NRA and other gun supporters' arguments, that attempts to restrict certain firearms will lead to further erosion of the rights guaranteed under the Constitution.

Those of us who favor stricter gun regulations nationwide – bans on semi-automatic weapons and bump stocks, age restrictions, vigorous background checks, stronger local control (basically what Massachusetts has in place) – don't want to take away the guns of law-abiding, responsible citizens. If you want to have a handgun or hunting rifle and can meet licensing criteria, fine. Even though statistics show that owning a gun doesn't make you any safer, if it's important to you, go for it.

But when what should be narrowly defined rights to bear arms – the Supreme Court has upheld limited restrictions on that Constitutionally-guaranteed right – run up against the other broad protection contained in that document, there has to be compromise. Free speech is also guaranteed in the Constitution, but our nation has laws against libel and slander, and there's no protection for someone who shouts fire in a crowded theater.

The young people who organized and participated in last weekends March For Our Lives seem to get this. Quite a few legislators and other adults in power don't. The NRA and their cronies have done their best to take down the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., deriding them as tools of “Hollywood,” “the elite” and claiming “violent radicals” are behind the movement.

Anyone who stood in the cold on the Hyannis Green Saturday could see how ridiculous such statements are. Among the student speakers was 15-year-old Natalie Breyer, a Stoneham Douglas High School student who had to walk past the dead bodies of her fellow students as she and others were escorted out of the building on Feb. 14. Her words were not slick or particularly well-crafted, but were heartfelt and sincere and came from a place most of us pray we will never be in, of having lived through such a horrifying and traumatic experience.

Breyer and other students who spoke Saturday want adults to step up to the plate and provide the protections that are implicit in the social contract that requires that young people attend school. Make the environment safe. And not only in the schools themselves by upgrading security, but in society at large, by restricting unnecessary assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, improving mental health services and tightening background checks. In Chatham, selectmen got it; they recently approved funding for a full-time school resources officer. Locally, school departments have an obligation to review physical security to ensure that classroom doors are bullet-proof and buildings are as secure as possible, and put funding for those measures before voters.

The students' most potent weapon, and one that was referred to numerous times Saturday, is the vote. Voter registration tables were the first thing march attendees saw when they entered the green. Many of the students will be voting in the mid term election in November, and even more in 2020. Unless elected officials manage in the meantime to take off their NRA-supplied blinders and see reality – that strict gun control laws like those in Massachusetts work and are favored by a majority of Americans – I hope these young people show up at the polls in droves, and show their elders what democracy is all about.