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Clarence Page: As Congress debates, more gun buyers seek 'safety' on their own

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People arrive to pay their respects during visitation for Amerie Jo Garza at Hillcrest Memorial Funeral Home on May 30, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images/TNS
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It's still hard to fathom the horrors reported from the mass shooting that left 19 children and two teachers shot to death at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, but to me the most haunting loss was Amerie Jo Garza.

The 10-year-old was shot by the 18-year-old gunman, who shall remain nameless in this column, while she reportedly tried desperately to call 911 for help on her new cellphone that her family said she received as a birthday present.

Help was not on the way for close to an hour, according to various reports, despite pleas from parents to storm the school.

While the Justice Department began an investigation into the chaos, the death of little Amerie Jo tugged at many hearts, including mine.

Girl Scouts of the USA posthumously awarded her its rare Bronze Cross for her bravery, which was more than anyone was saying about the delayed police response.

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She relied on the authorities for help and the authorities let her down. The response was horrible, not only because of the loss of life but also the blow it renders to the public's faith in the authorities assigned to keep us safe.

In the debate over gun safety that inevitably follows such mass shooting horrors, which only have become more frequent in recent years, systemic failures of this magnitude tend to drive more people to purchase more guns of their own -- increasing the prospects for home accidents or troubled individuals taking their own lives.

That drive already had become more intense during the pandemic. An estimated 7.5 million Americans became new gun owners between January 2019 and May 2021, a time frame that straddles the COVID-19 pandemic, according to research by Matt Miller, a professor of health sciences and epidemiology at Boston's Northeastern University.

The gun ownership surge began in 2005, Miller said, but differs from the past in the increasing diversity of the gun owners. Despite long-running stereotypes of gun buyers as mostly white males, half of the new gun owners during the pandemic were women, Miller reported, and almost half were people of color.

Sadly, I'm not surprised. People in lower-income, higher-crime neighborhoods, in particular, will tell you as they have told me that, no matter how much they support the police, they might as well try to rely on themselves.

Unfortunately, along with a rise in gun ownership, experts expect a measurable increase in suicides as well as gun-related accidents, both of which tend to rise statistically after guns have been brought into the house.

Is there any hope left? As he joined mourners in Texas, President Joe Biden implored lawmakers to "turn this pain into action."

"Why do we keep letting this happen? Where in God's name is our backbone to have the courage to deal with and stand up to the lobbies?" he said.

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We've heard those sentiments before. After failing to act on gun safety measures for more than a decade, our deeply divided Congress is once again trying to build some bridges on the issue and show the public they're something better than comatose.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, in whose district the Sandy Hook school massacre occurred, is heading one effort to see if he can find bipartisan compromise on something.

Most promising are such popular ideas as expanding background checks before someone can legally purchase a firearm and a national "red flag" law to prevent those who pose a threat to themselves or others from making such a purchase.

Recent polls have shown the most support, even among National Rifle Association members, for expanding background checks. Yet, despite years of talk, action is lacking.

Critics object to "red flag" laws as a possible infringement on due process by allowing a judge to make an initial decision, even if temporary, without hearing from the accused or that person having been convicted of a crime or adjudged mentally ill.

But those bumps in the road can be worked out by reasonable lawmakers, if reason has not died in Congress by now. Both sides should remember the heroism of Amerie Jo. She knew her duty and tried to do it. Now Congress needs to do theirs.

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.
©2021 Clarence Page. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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