Let's be honest: It's a tough time to be a gun safety advocate in Arkansas.
If you keep tabs on the body count that guns rack up in our country, my thoughts and prayers are with you. Every child who finds a loaded gun and pulls the trigger, every police officer down, every estranged husband or boyfriend seeking revenge by bullet is a kick in the gut for anyone who can bear to pay attention.
Here in Arkansas, gun violence is up close and personal. Last week, my Twitter feed stacked up with reports out of Van Buren, where an elementary school student faces criminal charges for bringing a stolen gun to school. Can any of us remember the last time we didn't find reports of at least one shooting in our morning newsfeed? Chicago gets a bad rap for its gun violence, but here's a dirty little secret for you: Illinois recorded 11.6 gun deaths per 100,000 residents in 2016. Here in Arkansas, we saw 17.7 gun deaths per 100,000.
Almost every year, Arkansas ranks in the top 10 states for gun violence. And recent changes in our gun laws and gun culture will give ulcers to anyone who dwells on them too long, because our legislators are leading us in the wrong direction. Despite passionate protests from students, teachers, parents and campus security experts, Arkansas lawmakers have saddled us with one of the most extreme campus-carry laws in the country. In the next month or so this law will allow guns in the hands of students, faculty or anybody else on a public college campus who's 21 or older and sits through a class of up to eight hours. Only a few other states force colleges to allow guns on campus, and many of them set aside some areas, such as residence halls, as off limits to guns. Not so in Arkansas, where guns will be allowed just about anywhere on campus, including classrooms, dorm rooms and frat houses. Oh, and bars. Yes — bars. Somehow the guns-on-campus legislation picked up a provision along the way that allows gun owners to bring their weapons with them to places that serve alcohol.
Add to all this the governor's legally dubious pronouncement that Arkansas law OKs anybody to openly tote a gun in public, no permit required, and it's not far-fetched to think that guns in Arkansas are a lot like rats in New York City: There's probably always one within 30 feet of you.
These extreme policies are dangerous, and we have to fight them. We ARE fighting them. I'm a leader with the Arkansas chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a nationwide group that formed after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. In January 2017, a crew of hopeful members of Moms Demand Action crammed into my kitchen to bake dozens of cookies for our state legislators. We delivered those cookies with the message that there are plenty of ways for them to respect the Second Amendment while protecting lives at the same time.
Of course, the results weren't what we hoped for. But we did get a sobering lesson in both the power of the gun lobby and the obstinance of lawmakers whose minds were made up before they hit the Little Rock city limits on their way to the session's opening day.
Another lesson we learned is this: Real change at the Capitol absolutely does not come from within. If you want different results, you're going to have to vote in some new faces.
We Moms call all of the adversity of the past year "losing forward," because while a few battles are lost, we know the moral universe will keep arcing our way if we keep hustling for it. Proof is in the amazing boost in our membership numbers. Outraged moms, along with dads, students, grandparents, aunts and uncles from across Arkansas are joining up for the fight against the dangerous guns-everywhere-for-everyone dystopia the gun lobby keeps pushing.
There are now active local Moms Demand chapters in Little Rock, Conway, Arkadelphia, Northwest Arkansas and Jonesboro. We also have plenty of lone-wolf operators around the state, making phone calls, sending emails, handing out gun locks and generally raising whatever kinds of hell need to be raised to get some life-saving legislation up in here.
You do not have to be a mom to be a Moms Demand Action supporter, and I'm delighted to add your name to our roster. Just text READY to 644-33 or look us up on Facebook.
Austin Bailey is the Little Rock group leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.