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A plea to gun owners to save more Sierras

Essay by Elizabeth Cohen, CNN Senior Medical Correspondent

In the late summer of 2020, my colleague Jo Parker, a senior editor at CNN, called me to discuss a job applicant. My department, CNN Health, was hiring a freelance news assistant to help with the avalanche of Covid-19 research, and Jo said she knew just the right person for the job.

I remember that phone conversation vividly, me in my kitchen making tea, Jo in her home. She was enthusiastic about the applicant, who had done an internship with her group at CNN, but I was hesitant. Very hesitant.

We needed someone who could digest complicated medical data under intense deadline pressure. Our last news assistant was getting her M.D. and Ph.D. at Harvard. The one before her was a physician about to start her neurology residency at Mass General Brigham. The applicant Jo was calling about was much younger — she’d just graduated from college. I doubted she could handle the workload.

Just hire her, Jo advised. You’ll see.

Because I’ve worked with Jo for decades and trust her implicitly, we hired the applicant. And she was right.

Just 23 years old with very little experience in journalism, much less sifting through medical-ese under a time crunch, this young woman performed at not just an A level, but an A+ level. It didn’t surprise us when four months later, The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press scooped her up with an offer of a permanent job. We bid her goodbye with hugs over a Zoom call and told her we hoped to see her back at CNN someday, when we’d welcome her with open arms.

Fifteen months later, Sierra Jenkins walked out of a pizza restaurant and was shot and killed.

Sierra was 25 when she died, and two other young people, Devon Harris, 25, and Marquel Andrews, 24, were also killed in the shooting. Police in Norfolk, Virginia, have made an arrest, and say the shooting was sparked by an argument over a spilled drink, according to The Pilot.

A kind and lovely woman, a bright and rising star, a young journalist with such incredible potential, gone in the second it took someone to pull a trigger.

During her time at CNN and while she was at The Pilot, Sierra and I would talk, sometimes for hours, about her career and aspirations and how to achieve them, how to find a certain source, for example, or craft a particular story.

As a former newspaper journalist myself, I tried to give her pointers, but I think I got more out of our talks than she did, as her enthusiasm and love for our shared profession filled my heart. When she had her first front-page story at The Pilot, she sent me this photo.

Her smile says it all. All of that joy, all of that potential, gone in a gunshot.

The night she died, Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN Health’s supervising editor, and I sat on the phone crying together. I told Jamie how Sierra had always reminded me of my oldest daughter, who’s just a few months younger. I have cried nearly every day since Sierra was killed. I am weeping now as I write this.

The recent tragedies in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas, leave all of us in terrible pain. Killing after killing, one word reverberating in our minds: Again? Again? Again? The words echo in my mind as a public health specialist, as a medical journalist who has reported on gun violence, and now as someone who has lost a dear colleague to a gun.

Like all Americans, my heart yearns for an answer on how to stop the carnage.

So I called my hairdresser.

The power of gun owners to save lives

Both in Congress and in state legislatures, Republicans have thwarted efforts to make America safer from gun violence — efforts such as universal background checks or laws to raise the required age to buy semiautomatic firearms to 21.

“Why do these Republicans refuse to act?” my colleague Harry Enten asked in a recent article. He answered his own question: “There is simply no political pressure to do so.”

Politicians like to get reelected, and it’s an old adage that when they want to know how to vote on an issue, they put their finger to the wind. Given that 44% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they personally own a gun, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last year, Republican politicians seem to think voters who own guns want their elected officials to oppose laws to curb gun violence.

That’s why I called my hairdresser.

Shane Petsch has cut my hair for nearly 30 years in Atlanta. He owns several guns and has had a concealed carry weapon permit since he was 21. He says he takes his pistol pretty much everywhere he goes except work.

Shane and other responsible gun owners are in a unique position to change the political winds and convince Republicans to vote for reasonable safety measures on these deadly weapons.

Shane has made it clear to me over and over (I get my hair cut quite frequently) that he wants to keep his gun. He doesn’t want anyone to take it away from him. On this point he is strong, firm, 100%, and as clear as day.

But Shane is also the father of two beautiful little girls, and he doesn’t want them to get shot in school, like in Uvalde or Newtown or Parkland, Florida, or while they’re out shopping, like in Buffalo or Columbia, South Carolina, or at church like in Sutherland Springs, Texas, or Charleston, South Carolina. He recognizes the randomness of shootings — that they can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere.

“I think any law that can be passed to keep guns out of mentally challenged people’s hands or anyone looking to commit a crime, I’m all about it,” he said.

Shane is not alone. While no one study is definitive, in a 2019 survey of more than 2,000 gun owners published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Tufts University researcher Dr. Michael Siegel found a majority supported measures to curb gun violence such as background checks and policies to keep guns from people at high risk for violence, including domestic violence offenders or those with mental illness.

And it wasn’t just a slight a majority — for example, 86% of gun owners in the survey supported background checks for concealed carry permits and 76% supported requiring a permit to carry a handgun.

If responsible gun owners speak up, it could be the “gamechanger” we’ve all been waiting for, Siegel said.

“Republicans are not going to listen to us public health people or to non-gun owners, but they’re going to have to listen to gun owners, especially those in their district who say ‘I’m not going to take any of this nonsense anymore,’ ” he said.

That’s why I’m making this plea to responsible gun owners, many of whom are already working hard to save lives. In Michigan, Jonathan Gold has been trying to get his state legislators to pass measures such as barring people convicted of domestic violence from buying a gun and better safe storage laws. He says he won’t stop trying, and notes that mass shootings are actually a small fraction of all gun deaths, with suicides accounting for more than half of them.

“I want to solve them all. I want to make this my life’s work,” said Gold, president of the Michigan chapter of Giffords Gun Owners for Safety, part of the organization led by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords to end gun violence in the US.

Emily Engelhaupt, a gun owner who works with Giffords Gun Owners for Safety in Colorado, has been working hard to save lives in her state. She testified in the state legislature in support of bills to require gun owners to safely store guns and to report lost or stolen firearms, and those bills became laws last year.

Gun owners who’ve lost loved ones to gun violence want to see things change, too.

Sierra’s father, Maurice Jenkins, owns a gun, but says the right to do so should not be without limits.

“The majority of the people who go out and purchase firearms the right way normally aren’t the problem,” he told me. “But I think in a lot of cases it’s way too easy to get a gun. The last time I purchased one, I was in and out of there in 20 minutes.”

Sierra’s mother, Moniquekia Thompson, also supports gun rights — she’s planning on getting firearm training for herself and Sierra’s younger sister — but she, too, wants to see changes in gun laws.

“What is an 18-year-old doing with an assault rifle? Those types of rifles shouldn’t be sold to individuals,” she said.

If politicians want to turn their backs on responsible gun owners and side instead with the National Rifle Association, they should think again. The NRA has been spending less and less on lobbying, and in addition, many responsible gun owners feel alienated from the group.

As Engelhaupt, the gun owner in Colorado, put it, NRA “rhetoric” on common sense gun laws “are extremist views and held by just a small portion of gun owners.”

‘Come to the table’

Last month, I was at Ramstein Air Base covering the airlift of infant formula from Germany to the US. We journalists are privileged to observe some amazing events, and it was awesome to watch members of the 721st Aerial Port Squadron take in nearly 100,000 cans of baby formula arrange them for delivery and send them into the sky.

I thought about how Sierra, a young, promising journalist, will never get to have an experience like this. I turned my back to my colleagues so they would not see my eyes fill with tears as I watched the young airmen and airwomen hard at work on this enormous task, beginning their careers just as Sierra was beginning hers when she was with us at CNN.

The pain I feel as a former colleague is nothing in comparison to what her parents feel, or what the parents of the little children in Uvalde are feeling.

Gun violence has become the No. 1 killer of children and teens in the United States, overtaking car accidents in 2020, according to a recent New England Journal of Medicine report.

Gun owners are in a unique position to spare any more parents from having to bury their children. But for that happen, those who don’t own guns need to help.

In the Tufts study, Siegel found that of that while 75% of gun owners supported universal background checks, only 7.3% of those supporters had ever publicly expressed support for such policies.

To save lives, people who don’t own guns need to make it easier for gun owners to speak up in support of such policies. As Siegel put it in his study, people need to “avoid alienating gun owners.”

“We need to show respect for their decision to own guns for self-defense or whatever [legal] purpose,” he told me.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, understands this. She’s the first CDC director to have the guts to talk seriously about guns in about 25 years, when the NRA convinced Congress to cut all of the CDC’s funding for gun research.

“I really do believe that the population of people who wants to own a gun doesn’t want people hurt by them,” she told me in our interview last year. “Come to the table. Join us in the conversation.”

Her starting point for that conversation with gun owners: No one wants more bloodshed.

“Let’s agree we don’t want people to die. Let’s just agree there. What can we do to stop people from dying, and what can we do to stop people from being injured?” she said.

It’s gun owners — and perhaps only gun owners — who have the political power to stop people from dying. It’s gun owners who can become the real American heroes of this story.

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