Opinion The Colorado sit-in for a gun ban is a courageous act of imagination

(Washington Post staff illustration; iStock)

On the first day of school vacation in Denver next month, thousands of White women plan to sit on the lawn of Colorado’s state Capitol to demand protection for the mental and physical health of America’s children. The most committed say they will stay until Gov. Jared Polis (D) issues an executive order to ban guns and buy them back.

Crazy, right?

This is even crazier: Guns are the No. 1 killer of children and teens in this country. Lives cut short by shootings are a cause and effect of America’s mental health crisis. Even when no shots are fired, just knowing shots could be is also damaging kids. More than 4 million children endured at least one lockdown during the 2017-2018 school year. The fear that results can lead to depression, anxiety, insomnia, bad grades and substance abuse. Kids suffer from hearing gunfire in their neighborhoods, too. Physicians at the University of Pennsylvania found that in the weeks after a shooting, children living in nearby blocks were almost twice as likely to go to the emergency room with mental health symptoms. Black children and families living in poverty are hit especially hard.

Guest Opinion: Children are suffering from gun violence — even if it’s blocks away from their home

As school shootings hit record numbers, there is a new phase in the response, one built around the civil rights movement. Called Here 4 the Kids, the strategy was devised by women who are Black, Indigenous and of color — groups that endure the most violence and repression. Although the organizers welcome everyone’s support, White women are being enlisted for the Denver sit-in because they are statistically least likely to be harmed by police.

Author and activist Saira Rao, who lost a 2018 Democratic primary run for Congress in Colorado, says she and anti-racism advocate Tina Strawn started Here 4 the Kids after the Nashville school shooting in March. Rao says it was crazy-making for despondent parents when President Biden suggested the fix was for Congress to just ban assault weapons.

She and Strawn are mothers, like the founders of the Million Mom March 23 years ago and Moms Demand Action, now 11 years old. But this movement trades pragmatism for active discomfort. Organizers are asking protesters to sit at Colorado’s Capitol for at least four days before replacements swap in. They say race and class matter in the effort.

Their approach is modeled after the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, in which civil rights activists protested efforts to block Black Americans from exercising their right to vote. Just months after images of state troopers attacking peaceful marchers galvanized the support of White allies, the Voting Rights Act was passed.

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A national movement, Here 4 the Kids is focusing first on Colorado because it has leaned primarily Democratic in recent election cycles. Suicides put the state’s rate of gun deaths 13 percent above the national average. Here, almost a quarter-century after the mass murder at Columbine High School, the public health epidemic caused by Americans’ addiction to guns is both extraordinary and utterly mundane.

When I learned of the demand to ban guns, I considered how even liberals would respond: This will rev up the right and alienate moderates; state borders are porous; it would get tied up in the courts.

But what Colorado’s governor does is not the point. The power of this action is in Americans uniting to question why living with mass murder is sane while a ban on guns would be crazy. It also offers hope for collective healing in a traumatized nation.

Trauma — caused by a mass shooting or losing someone to suicide or homicide — shatters people’s sense of control, which can be devastating to mental health. In recovery, if they can’t control their environment, it can help to control their reaction to that environment, says Eranda Jayawickreme, a leading researcher on post-traumatic growth at Wake Forest University. For some, making meaning from a senseless act can be a way to do that.

But it’s hard for people to weather systemic violence in isolation. They need the support of others who can empathize and strategize. In a country where 1 in 5 people say a family member was killed by a gun, Here 4 the Kids offers a communal way to recognize the fragility of life and do something to protect it.

When survivors share their traumatic experiences with others, the responses they receive affect their recovery. Thema Bryant, president of the American Psychological Association, explained it to me this way: If a child reports that she has been abused and the adult responds, “This should never have happened. I’m going to protect you,” then the child will probably fare better than if the adult replies, “You’re being sensitive. I’m taking you back there tomorrow.”

“I’m taking you back there tomorrow” is how America responds to gun violence. It sends kids to school to practice lockdown drills. It does little to fix the structures that made Black children 100 times more likely to be shot than White children during much of 2020 and 2021. It fails to address the cultural factors, including mass murder, that contribute to nearly 1 in 3 high school girls seriously considering suicide.

Still, when I first talked to Rao, I told her a ban on guns was hard to imagine. She said bans on Black history books and abortion and Muslims were once hard to imagine.

“We haven’t lost our minds. We’ve lost our imaginations,” Rao told me.

Americans have a choice: Envision joy and safety for children or limit our demands to what’s comfortable for adults. On June 5, I’ll be in Denver to witness this courageous act of imagination. The country’s mental health depends on it.