May 3, 2023

We Have Become Uncomfortably Numb

by Senator Jeff Smith

There are many issues that grab headlines. Too often the hot topics hold our attention for a day or two and then are relegated to the back pages or disappear entirely. These are the issues that typically compel us to come together to act as a community.

Sometimes the issues are manufactured, like Congress’ struggle to raise the national debt ceiling that dominated headlines in the past week. This issue is like a bobber in the water – it pops up, Congress acts and it disappears for a while, only to pop up again next budget cycle. Congress has a knack for choosing to end the drama at the last possible moment. They get more headlines for saving the day on a near-crisis that they themselves created.

But some issues we become galvanized about are very real and affect us every day. These day-in, day-out issues are ubiquitous, and each time they come up, we become a little more numb, beginning to accept these as commonplace occurrences. We don’t have general consensus on a solution, so it increasingly feels that we aren’t going to do anything about it, leaving it to the next generation to fix.

Maybe the most obvious of these issues is gun violence. Yes, every mass shooting dominates the headlines, but then quickly fades from our consciousness, at least until the next shooting. It’s a horrible cycle of nonstop news coverage for one, maybe two days, which then promptly fades into the background. We’re so numb that we expect a new shooting every week. It’s not about when – it’s about where the next shooting will occur.

It has become so commonplace that the leading cause of death for American children and adolescents ages 1 to 19 is gun violence. The public has shown overwhelming support for measures such as tightening background checks, banning assault rifles and passing extreme risk protection legislation to prevent individuals undergoing a crisis from hurting themselves or others. But Republicans and even some Democrats are so beholden to the gun lobby they refuse to act. In fact, recently instead of addressing gun violence, Republicans have introduced legislation to create an honorary official state gun.

Like so many others I was shocked and brokenhearted to hear of the two officers that were shot and killed in Cumberland over Easter weekend. Not only was it shocking that such a horrific thing could happen in a small city in northern Wisconsin, it was devastating to contemplate the chance this tragedy could have been prevented.

The family of the shooter, who also lost his life, reported that he had terrorized family members and made statements that he would shoot any police officers who pulled him over. They knew he had two guns in his vehicle and could have pursued an extreme risk protection order if it were allowed under the law.

The idea of an extreme risk protection order is to stop situations like this one from occurring by preventing individuals from accessing deadly weapons while they are undergoing a mental health crisis. This legislation has been introduced several times, but has received not even a public hearing. Not one Republican has signed on to this legislation as a sponsor.

If we had passed the Emergency Risk Protection Order bill we have introduced every session, it could prevent tragedies like this from happening. It can protect the police, the family and the person struggling with mental health crises. Unfortunately, it is easier to ignore action if those in charge know the issue will fade away, at least until the next tragedy occurs.

The next generation will need to pick up where our generation has failed to take action. In the meantime, they will continue to participate in active shooter drills at schools, praying all the time they’re not the next victims of one of these deadly attacks.

Many solutions, including extreme risk protection orders, are right in front of us. But it takes concerted and dedicated work to get the ball rolling in the right direction. This requires a focus that goes beyond the moment, keeping the issue at the forefront of our minds even when it’s not plastered across the headlines.

From what I can tell, Generation Z has had just about enough of our generation punting on the issues that will affect them the most. Young people are some of the strongest voices in advocating and voting for change. If our generation refuses to take action, we should be prepared to get out of the way.