Saturday, May 7, 2011

Pediatricians may be banned from asking about guns

I am not an advocate of gun control. I believe all Americans have the right to own and bear arms and this right is protected by our Constitution. This does not mean that all Americans have the innate common sense and intelligence to exercise that right. There are laws that in certain situations restrict gun ownership.

With rights come responsibilities.

It sounds like Florida is about to enter the world of Animal Farm. Governor Rick Scott has a bill on his desk which would ban pediatricians from asking their patients about gun ownership and the safe practices inherent in gun ownership. The American Academy of Pediatrics has encouraged its members to ask questions about guns and how they're stored, as part of well-child visits. But Marion Hammer, the NRA's lobbyist in Tallahassee, says that's not a pediatrician's job. She calls it an invasion of privacy and Second Amendment rights.  (Listen to the story on NPR Weekend Edition .)

I do not own a gun nor have I ever had a working gun in my home. I know a number of people who own hand guns and rifles—some for hunting and some for personal protection—and none of those people strike me as ones who would recklessly endanger a child (or an adult) through improper use or storage of a weapon.

But I know there are lots of people in this world who do not have the wherewithal to keep a loaded weapon safe. All you have to do is watch the news or read the papers to find stories of accidental shootings which should have been prevented by responsible adults practicing gun safety. But too often they do not.

As a young child I was exposed to a tragic shooting in my small home town. A close friend and class-mate was killed by his brother when the rifle they were playing with accidentally discharged into my young friend’s chest, killing him instantly. Might this weapon have been stored more safely if a doctor had asked the family about firearms in their home? We will never know. Does it seem unreasonable to believe it might have made a difference?

Should we prohibit citizens from owning guns or having guns if there are small children in the home? Absolutely not. More children die in backyard swimming pools than in accidental shootings and I know of no movement to prohibit families with young children from owning swimming pools.

But if lives can be saved by pediatricians asking families questions concerning gun safety, we should be encouraging that practice rather than prohibiting it.

If Governor Scott signs this bill into legislation I expect I will take on the task of asking parishioners if they practice gun safety in their homes. It seems like the responsible thing to do and if it lands me in jail I’m sure my congregation will be happy to bail me out.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Heroes

One thing you quickly noticed near the “affected areas” were the number of distribution centers for all kind of supplies. Water, ice, tarps, plywood, nails, tools. They were piled high under large tents or in the open in church parking lots. Drive through and pick up what you need. No questions asked, except “do you need any help?” That’s where the heroes come in.

For day’s students, residents, fraternity and sorority brothers and sisters, university staff, and a myriad of others combed the “affected areas” looking for people in need of help. Clearing debris from property seemed to be the most needed assistance. Not much can happen until the big trees are chopped up and toted to the street for eventual pickup. Insurance adjusters cannot appraise auto damage until the can see the cars to assess them. So, for days these heroes have cut and hauled and stacked debris throughout the “affected areas.”

On the porch of a student’s house near the graveyard south of Bryant-Denny Stadium I spend time with a group of students who have been doing this work for four days in the hot, humid, Alabama weather. We shared more than a few beers and I hear their stories. They had come from all over the country, Texas, Georgia, Alabama, and California, to study at the University. As I listened to them talk about what they had been doing the previous four days I was struck by the pragmatism they each brought to the task at hand. A terrible thing had happened to their community. They were able to help those in need, so they showed up every day to do whatever was necessary.

Each day these and hundreds of others patrolled the streets looking for people to help. Pickup trucks, overalls, gloves, and strong backs were all that they had to offer—but it was enough. One young man from Atlanta, Scottie, showed the evidence of hours in the sun by sporting a serious farmer’s tan, numerous bug-bites, and lots of cuts and scratches from hauling brush to the street. Another student from Ventura, Ashley, had a serious looking abrasion and knob on her shin. All were complaining of sore muscles and aching backs. It was odd to think that these students, who had been released from the remainder of their classes and final exams, chose to stay behind a while to help out as they could. Well Done!

I wondered what drove these students to go out and put in a hard day’s work for no pay. I mean, they are students. It isn’t like they don’t need the money. And it isn’t like they don’t have other demands on their time. Clay, from Dallas, was also a tornado survivor. He rode out a head on attack in the basement of his rented house. Under the onslaught of two-hundred plus mile per hour winds the house had collapsed upon him. He climbed out of the rubble amide total devastation. His car had been crushed by a fallen tree. His belongings scattered. I could imagine why Clay was still in Tuscaloosa; he was trapped. But it was more than that. It was a sense of duty and responsibility to their community, their school, and each other. It was nice to see.

In fact, it was the day after the assassination of Osama Bin Laden and I heard no conversation about his death; no gloating or nationalistic fervor, only total absorption in the situation they faced. That is why I tagged them with the hero badge. If our country and the world are to be placed in the hands of future leaders cut from the same cloth as these young people, I feel safe. Maybe there is a sense of responsibility among the youth of today. Maybe we have misjudged our future leaders. I think so.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Ground Zero Tuscaloosa Alabama

I am writing this in my son's apartment in Tuscaloosa Alabama. A light rain is falling and the power has just gone off. It may be for a few minutes or a few hours, or longer. For the people who have nowhere to go, this life, even in an undamaged apartment, must be depressing. I realize now why all the digital clocks in the apartment are flashing at me.

As I sit in Ian’s apartment the sounds of mourning doves are interspersed with chain saw engines, and the noise of the cleanup from across the street. I arrived here yesterday via Southwest Air from Jacksonville through Birmingham. Driving from the airport one never got the impression that anything very bad had happened to this area just a few days before. But, when we arrived in Tuscaloosa it got different fast.

Ian lives in the Midtown apartment complex in Tuscaloosa. It is a new, three story building with covered parking decks on each floor and located one block west of McFarland Blvd. on the south side of the University campus—not far from the intersection of 15th Street and McFarland. I had seen pictures of the damage to this area on the net so I was prepared for some pretty spectacular sites. What I wasn't prepared for was the total destruction of homes, churches, businesses, and neighborhoods that surrounded where my son had been living.

After dropping my things at his apartment—navigating to which was no small task—we made a quick drive through of a neighborhood which was representative of the numerous “affected areas”. This was a very modest neighborhood of homes surrounding a pretty little lake lined with trees. I had seen this area once before as we were looking for living quarters for Ian last fall. It contains a mix of student off-campus housing and resident owners. As we left my son’s apartment complex and crossed 5th Avenue we started down a side street. Each house we passed had massive damage. The cars which were destroyed by the blowing debris laden winds had been removed. But the ones which had been crushed by falling trees and structures remained. After four days of continuous clean-up effort, it was impossible to tell that anything had been done, except for the massive piles of trees and shrubs and vegetation that had been piled in front of each house.

As we left 5th Avenue and processed south I noticed that the roof damage was getting significantly worse. The first houses were missing shingles and roofing felt. They had been covered with blue plastic tarps like giant blue bandages. As we made our way southwest the damage intensified. Roofs were not only missing shingles and felt but structural members, then whole sections of hips and gables, and then entire roofs were gone. A few blocks further it was impossible to even distinguish where a house had been or if what I was seeing had once even been a house.

Along our route were an army of bucket trucks. With their outriggers splayed out to stabilize the truck they were busy stringing new power lines. It was an interesting sight because I soon realized that every line they were stringing was attached to a new pole. And what I had at first thought was a random arrangement of power poles were in fact the denuded remains of large trees. The tornado had stripped the leaves, branches, and bark off of every tree I could see and had then snapped the tree like a twig , fifteen or twenty feet above the ground. Other trees, like the oaks, had been uprooted and deposited on top of a convenient car, truck, or house. Some of the houses were simply cleaved in two by massive oaks which had fallen or been deposited by the storm. In one driveway and late model Chevy SUV was parked, completely totaled by a tree. A young man was working diligently trying to remove a bicycle from the car. It was obviously a futile effort as the bike was also crushed by the giant tree. Further along a giant oak, five feet in diameter, had reduced a two story brick home to rubble. All around the pile of debris stood silent fifteen foot tall pine sticks, once fine trees in their own right.

Some houses were relatively inhabitable. Their residents worked outside or inside clearing away trash and debris. Some just sat on chairs in their yard or driveway—if it was clear—and watched in numb silence. One guy sat in a lawn chair, his shotgun casually laying on his lap. On the corner of his property was a hand painted sigh that read, “Occupied and armed. Looters will be shot.” People are generally tired, fearful, and pissed.

But, last night as we wound our way back to Ian’s place we passed two houses holding lawn parties. The grill was smoking and the driveway was outlined with tiki torches. It reminded me of a Fourth of July cookout. It may be a long time before things return to normal for those in the affected areas, but every day brings a little bit of happiness. Two steps forward, one step back.