On the website of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus there is a statistic worth knowing if you live in Ohio. About 1,100 residents of the Buckeye State lose their lives at the trigger of a firearm every year. That includes homicides, accidental shootings and suicides.
It’s also a number that you’d think would be worth knowing if you represented the great state of Ohio in Congress. Yet until April it was not a figure that rolled off the tongue of Senator Rob Portman. Far more astonishing than Portman’s ignorance of the number of his constituents killed by guns every year are the circumstances in which this gap in his education was filled. Portman didn’t hear it from the hospital, a newspaper or cable news. He learned it from a 13-year-old boy named James Barden.
James had come to Washington with his mother and father and other grieving parents four months after his freckle-faced brother Daniel (who would be eight years old on Friday) was massacred in his first-grade classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School, along with 19 of his classmates and six dedicated educators. These families had come to implore senators to support a bipartisan bill to ensure all gun sales are accompanied by a simple background check.
During the meeting, one of dozens that the Sandy Hook parents held ahead of the April 17 defeat of the legislation, James informed Portman about how many Ohioans are killed every year by bullets. Then, he asked, “Do you think that this legislation could save just a few of those lives?” Portman bowed his head. Tears welled up in his eyes. “Yes, it probably could,” he replied. A couple of days later, Portman voted against the bill.
The episode is less revealing of Portman’s failings as a human being than it is about extraordinary children like James who have the most at stake in resolving the gun violence debate in our country. Because of what happened in Newtown last December, every American kid traipses through the country’s public, private and parochial schools fully aware that their safety is not guaranteed. They are reminded of this fact every time their teachers conduct a lockdown drill. Call them Generation Lockdown.