‘Enough’: Moms Demand Action hold a rally to demand Grassley and Ernst take action on gun violence

Local Moms Demand Action volunteer Rebecca Truszkowski takes a photo from the stage to tweet to Sen. Chuck Grassley and Sen. Joni Ernst. Saturday, Aug. 18, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America rally on Sunday started with statistics — “Every day, 100 Americans are shot and killed,” Holly Sanger of the Iowa City/Johnson County chapter of Moms Demand Action told the crowd gathered on the Pentacrest at the beginning of the rally — but concluded with one word: “enough.”

“We are tired of waiting [for politicians to act], we are tired of asking, we are tired of being mad, especially when we know there are solutions,” Sanger said as the rally drew to an end. “We’ve heard enough, we’ve had enough and we demand action. So, if you’re angry, frustrated or heartbroken, then let me hear you say ‘enough.’”

The crowd of more than 100 shouted, “Enough.”

The Pentacrest event was one of 111 rallies Moms Demand Action held across the country over the weekend. The rallies were timed to coincide with the end of Congress’ August recess, and push senators to act on the gun control legislation already passed by the House of Representatives.

In February, the Democrat-controlled House passed two bills expanding federal background checks for gun purchases. The Republican-controlled Senate has refused to take any action on the bills. The House is scheduled to take up a bill on red-flag laws, which allow families and law enforcement agencies to petition judges to temporarily remove the guns of people believed to an imminent danger to themselves or others.

Holly Sanger ends the Moms Demand Action rally with a call to action. Saturday, Aug. 18, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

“It is well past time for senators to listen to their constituents and pass a law requiring background checks on every gun sale in America, as well as strong federal red-flag legislation,” Sanger said in her opening remarks. She pointed out that polling indicts 92 percent of Americans, including 83 percent of gun-owners, support strong background checks.

“Mass shootings like those in El Paso, Dayton and Gilroy are horrific and they have shattered our sense of security,” Sanger said. “However, the impact of gun violence goes far beyond mass shootings.”

Two of the rally’s speakers, RaQuishia Harrington and Mira Bohannan Kumar, spoke to that impact in their own lives.

“I’ve personally lost family members,” Harrington, a North Liberty City Councilmember, said. “I’ve lost an uncle, and I’ve lost a nephew. My nephew was 17 years old, and he lost his life by telling a joke. Merely a joke, and was gunned down in broad daylight in Waterloo, Iowa.”

“To this day, we still don’t know who did it. Each day, I look at my nieces, I look at my sister-in-law, I look at my family and I know that our lives have all been changed.”

North Liberty City Councilmember RaQuisha Harrington speaks about the impact of gun violence during the Moms Demand Action Rally on the Pentacrest. Saturday, Aug. 18, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Bohannan Kumar, who is entering her senior year at City High School, started advocating gun control following the February 2018 mass shooting at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. She’s one of the founders of Students Against School Shootings.

“There is no word, in any language I know of, to express grief over preventable tragedy,” Bohannan Kumar said. “There is no word to express constant fear in a place where you should feel safe. Yet each of us here today has felt one or both of these emotions.”

“I know that every time I turn on the news to see that there’s been another mass shooting, or I hear about a tragedy of someone being shot and killed or taking their own life with a firearm, I’m hit with grief over a preventable tragedy,” she continued. “Every day at school, walking the halls, sitting in class, laughing with my friends, startling when someone drops a book, or when the PA system comes on, I am afraid in a place where I should feel safe.”

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“These feelings are, in this America, inescapable.”

Three weeks ago, following the latest high-profile mass shootings, it appeared that even President Trump, who has repeatedly expressed contempt for gun control advocates and has consistently praised the NRA, was ready to support new gun control measures. Trump has since backtracked and is now saying new laws aren’t necessary because there are already “very strong background checks right now.”

Students Against School Shootings co-founder Mira Bohannan Kumar speaks during the Moms Demand Action Rally on the Pentacrest. Saturday, Aug. 18, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Sen. Joni Ernst sounded a similar note at a town hall meeting held early Saturday morning in a Des Moines suburb. The senator, who is one of the biggest recipients of financial support from the NRA in Congress, said stricter enforcement of existing laws is preferable to expanding background checks.

“What we do have to make sure is those that are law-abiding citizens are still able to purchase weapons. It’s our Second Amendment right,” Ernst said.

Ernst also said she opposes an assault weapons ban.

“Any weapon out there can be used to harm another person,” the senator said. She added, “Who decides what is considered an assault weapon?”

Ernst, who doesn’t support any of the proposals for a red-flag law, tried to shift the discussion from gun control to mental health. (Trump is taking a similar approach. “We don’t want crazy people owning guns,” the president told reporters last week, before saying he favored putting “crazy people” in institutions. “We can’t let these people be on the streets.”)

“Most of [the mass shooters], again, there’s mental instability there and we need to find a way to initiate actions against them,” Ernst told the approximately 300 people who showed up at an elementary school in Johnston at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday for the town hall.

Speaking at the Moms Demand Action rally on Sunday, Leslie Carpenter rejected the link between gun violence and mental illness that politicians like Trump and Ernst are referencing.

“Hate is not a mental illness, nor is anger, revenge, bigotry or racism,” said Carpenter, president of the Johnson County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Carpenter explained that a person with mental illness is far more likely to be the victim of violence than the perpetrator. According to the National Council on Behavioral Health, people with untreated or undertreated mental illnesses account for only 1 to 4 percent of all gun violence in America, and only make up 30 percent of mass shooters in recent decades.

NAMI of Johnson County President Leslie Carpenter speaks about mental health and gun violence. Saturday, Aug. 18, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Access to guns also facilitates suicides, Carpenter said. Having a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide by three times, according to a 2014 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Approximately 23,000 Americans commit suicide using a firearm every year.

“Many politicians will offer thoughts and prayers, and then quickly pivot to blame mental illness for a mass shooting,” Carpenter said. “Ironically, precious few of them actually work to address the mental health care crisis in our country.”

Offering “thoughts and prayers,” instead of taking legislative action on guns, has been the typical approach of Iowa’s two senators. The rally was intended to send both of them a message.

Near the end of the hour-long event, Moms Demand Action volunteer Rebecca Truszkowski asked everyone to crowd together in front of the podium — many people had drifted over the shade of the trees on the Pentacrest to get out of the sun — so she could take a photo to tweet to Sens. Ernst and Chuck Grassley.

Whether such demonstrations of support for new gun laws by Iowans will have any impact on the senators is doubtful. Ernst, who is running for reelection, made her lack of interest in taking action clear at the town hall in Johnston. And during his appearance on Iowa Press last week, Grassley said, “I think there’s a feeling that if you’re going to do anything in the Second Amendment area, that you want to make sure the president’s going to sign it.”