Monday, August 3, 2015

An open letter to President Obama

Dear Mr. President

I apologize in advance as some of this might be a bit rough to read. I am a native New Yorker after all. I write to you on this ordinary day in our great nation. Nothing spectacular happened when I woke up this morning and turned on my local news. There was nothing out of the ordinary as the first 20 minutes were devoted to several stories of young lives cut short by guns. These were young people who had potentially bright futures. Young people that needed your leadership on this issue. And the living that are left behind still do.

A little background. In the beginning, I was a supporter of your best known opponent. I thought she would have made a better president for our country at the time. But I proudly voted for you twice and despite the negative propaganda surrounding your victories, I grew to deeply appreciate your work ethic and character. I grew up as an atheist NYC/NJ Jewish kid. My friends could have been junior representatives of the UN. I never saw you for your race, I never saw you for your color. But when you won, as hearts raced around the world, and tears of pride came from all corners as a man of color ascended to our nation’s highest office, I celebrated and cried those tears with them as well.

Mr. President, I want to take a moment to thank you for all you have done thus far. To paraphrase a recent interview you gave, ‘though it all seems to be changing quickly, what we as a nation are witnessing are the cumulative effects of years and years of the administration’s hard work.' Old pillars of discrimination are falling one after the other. One of the promises of our constitution is finally beginning to be realized; that all of us are created equal. Though as we all know, we have a long way to go. For instance, anyone willing to honestly look at poverty, race, and police bias knows that darker skinned Americans do not get the same opportunities, privileges, and outcomes in life as light skinned Americans. But back to the positive: Americans who have never been able to afford health coverage now have it; myself included. We are now talking to countries instead of flattening them with all the might of our enormous military. Cuba is open for business and trade with us; that very simple act was long overdue. And looking back to your last term, you went after and took out the ultimate leader of terror who masterminded the most spectacular terrorist attack in our history on 9/11/2001. You achieved this feat with a small team of our best and bravest soldiers using methods that should have been employed to hunt down terrorists in 2001-2003 instead of invading 2 sovereign nations and killing 1,000,000+ civilians as our last President did. Those actions not only bankrupted our country, but assisted directly in the creation of the evil ideological organization we now know as ISIS.

While conservative Americans continue to employ their paranoia and propaganda machine to terrify our population about Isis-inspired terrorism taking over the country, they are creating a far worse terrorism. More and more of them easily buy up many guns. And more guns = more gun deaths. No one living a life based on facts and reality has any basis to dispute this. The balanced and honest Americans among us are far more concerned about this real threat of terrorism. A mother cannot send her children to school in America without the fear of this terrorism. A family cannot go to a movie theater in America without the fear of this terrorism. Open-carry 'activists' stand in front of high schools and bring assault rifles into malls and supermarkets to 'make a point', all while terrorizing citizens all over the country. These same folks organize rallies outside Mosques to scare and intimidate peaceful Muslim families who have gathered for prayer. Imagine the outrage if a group of armed Muslims gathered outside a church shouting hateful slogans during prayer on Sunday. And of course, we are not just talking about mass shootings. This systemic problem needs to be addressed, not simply for 20 children gunned down in Newtown, not simply for 5 Marines killed in Chattanooga, and not simply for 9 peaceful and praying African-Americans in a Charleston church. But also for the tens of thousands of nameless and faceless forgotten victims of terrorism every year in our country that no one seems to care about. Because, Mr. President, as a nation, we have become numb and given up. I used to watch the morning news. But I do find it difficult now. And this morning, like every other morning, I turned it on and the news is dominated by gun deaths in my community. Mr. President, I live in Nashville, Tennessee. In a 2013 New York Times article, Nashville was called 'America's IT city.' But Nashville is not unique with regards to gun violence. Every city in America faces these problems. Every community, large and small. As I write this, I am reflecting on the news broadcast, and unfortunately I cannot remember the names of the 10 people in my community that died overnight at the hands of gun violence… AKA domestic terrorism.

Mr. President, as I said earlier, I grew up in the New York City and New Jersey metropolitan area. I used to dress as a chicken and deliver singing telegrams to the top floors of the World Trade Center, and I DJ'ed many happy parties and corporate events there. I was a child of the Northeast. Everyone I know knows someone directly or indirectly that perished on 9/11 at the hands of terror. But with 30,000 or more people every single year dying at the hands of gun violence, I would say it is more likely that every American knows someone affected by this far more dangerous form of terror. To drive that point a bit further, I happen to know or have some connection with two of the victims of the Newtown school shooting. And again, no parents in America should have to wonder when they drop their children off at school, whether or not they will see them again. This is simply not acceptable. Not in any country, but certainly not in the United States of America in 2015.

A little bit more background on me, Mr. President. I came from a broken home. But like many born into my skin color, I found a way to rise above it. That was much easier for me than for many of my friends that have darker skin color and came from different circumstances. I was so lucky to have been born an American. To have found my voice and purpose on this earth in the world of arts and entertainment. I am 42 years old and have supported myself throughout my life by following my own path. While I might have started out as a broken kid and a high school dropout, at times using drugs and alcohol to cope with my pain, within 16 years I was able to turn that kid around into a Harvard graduate with honors. I walked in Harvard Yard in front of my mother and grandmother, my father and both of my stepparents. I, my friends of color, and of all national origins, believe that every child, no matter where they come from, should have the same opportunity to live out what we were taught is the American dream.

Last fall, I had the privilege and honor of spending 3 weeks in the Middle East and Africa entertaining our troops. I met so many great and proud Americans; black, white, muslim, christian, jewish, gay, straight (and everyone else I left out). It was the experience of a lifetime and we discussed many of these issues late nights as we lived among them. I was also lucky to share some quiet conversations with some of the higher ranking officers as well. Here is what I learned: The military for the most part understands that the grocery store, the movie theater, schools and restaurants are not the battlefield. There is simply no need to have firearms in those places. And there is no need to have them so freely available. I also learned first hand that they are suffering deeply from PTSD before they ever get back home and we need to do a much better job supporting them once they do.

So what is there to do? I see increasing frustration and sadness on your face, in your eyes, and hear the absolute exhaustion in your voice. I see it every single time you have to go on TV and talk about yet another senseless killing at the hands of a hateful and aggressive gun owner that simply wanted to settle a score. When you came into office, many fearful light skinned Americans didn't know what to do. And for whatever reason, every conservative person I spoke to at the time kept repeating the mantra that: Obama's coming for our guns! This was no doubt fueled by the insanely terroristic and racist propaganda of the NRA. I remember some of their ads from that time. Many resemble Hitler’s Nazi ads depicting my people (Jews) in Germany in the 1930s. I remember Ted Nugent, a former guitar star and ranking mouthpiece of the NRA threatening your life on many occasions. As if that weren't bad enough, he and those in his camp have encouraged others to take up arms against the government and assassinate you and members of your family. And he wasn't the only one. There were so many on social media, and in interviews, all over the country threatening your life, with their guns. As recently as this summer, you were coming to visit my current state of Tennessee. You were coming to Nashville no less, the most liberal and open city we have. This was right after you had the most victorious week of any president in recent memory. Equal marriage rights had come to same-sex couples that had fought so long for them, the Affordable Care Act you fought so hard for was defended once again in the Supreme Court and is currently the law of the land, and you reopened diplomatic relations and lifted travel restrictions to and from Cuba. It was a wonderful week for our country, and the entire world took notice. However, also noticed (at least in Tennessee) were signs put up at businesses saying NO GAYS ALLOWED, scores of confederate flags lining the routes your motorcade would be taking, and of course, direct threats to assassinate you from the fringe elements of white supremacy that are still deep-seeded in our culture.

I am reminded this morning of a Charles Dickens quote; "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." So once again I pose the question, what is there to do? Mr. President, I hate to put things in these words but: Sir, you are the Commander-in-Chief. It is your primary purpose to ensure the safety and well-being of our nation and the citizens living within it. What I am about to ask you to do will be controversial.  And before asking this, I want to you to know how proud I am to have been alive during this time, to see our first African-American president. That is no small thing. And to have witnessed your amazing accomplishments in the midst of the most divisive and dare I say racist Congress we have ever seen. The Congress and the Senate are supposed to be in Washington working for 'we the people', the citizens of United States. But all they do is bend to the desires of lobbyists, follow their own radical ideology, and do anything in their power to stop you from doing your job to advance the nation. I want you to know that your perseverance, your unbelievable poise, and your consistent hard work has been deeply appreciated by many of us in America. And whether they know it or not, your loudest critics and opponents are already benefiting from the work that you have done and the goals you have accomplished. They just like it better when those ideas come from a different source. And I think you understand that as well.

So Mr. President, it is with a grave sense of duty and urgency that I ask you to issue an executive order and do everything in your power to ban guns nationwide. Let me be a bit more clear. Handguns, semi-automatic weapons, they need to go. Police need them to do their job, but they also need to be wearing body cameras, and be held accountable for their abuses of power. Police need to stop killing and mistreating people of color. For those Americans living outside of developed areas, hunting licenses should be available but they should not be simple to get. And similar to other safeguards in our society, people should be required to reapply for their license every year. Background checks should be carried out every year as part of the process to keep those weapons. Mr. President, even after all the good you have done for our country, and there is so much good, ensuring the safety of our nation, of our children, and of our most innocent people; that is not only your responsibility, but it would be the most noble legacy you could leave this country when you leave office. I see the pain and struggle in your eyes when you give those terribly common press conferences. I hear the devastation in your trembling and frustrated voice. I know this is something you want to accomplish more than anything in this world; for your children, for your family, and for the sons and daughters of this great nation.

Gun laws need to be exactly the same for all 50 states. There should be no loopholes. Whatever it takes to get guns off the streets is worth it, amnesty programs for illegal guns, tax benefits and much lower interest rates on mortgages for the legal ones, anything. Whatever it takes. There is nothing more important to the safety and health of this nation than to take action on this issue. We do need to take things a step further than that though. When we Americans go to an airport, a concert, sporting event, or a government building, we walk through a metal detector or are waved with a wand. This is normal, no one complains about it, we just do it. These types of entry barriers need to be in all public places. Whether they be malls, schools, public parks, movie theaters, or any place that serves the public good. We need to restore safety to our streets, and to our citizens. With all due respect sir, you have the power to get that done. I daresay you have the responsibility to get that done. Mr. President, please forgive the direct manner in which I am addressing you at this point. However, since 9/11, well over 150,000 American lives have been lost to gun violence in America. If handguns and assault rifles were banned completely, many lives will be saved, both homicides and suicides. The notion that all those people would have been killed anyway is ridiculous and statistically false. Having a gun in one's possession makes one more aggressive, more likely to use that gun, and more ready to settle differences fatally with a quick pull of the trigger. At the very least, they are more likely to escalate a situation by taking the gun out and pointing it, terrorizing those innocent people around them. On the road, and parking lots, and in grocery stores, countless tense situations are escalated to terror because of the availability of guns. And make no mistake, these are legal gun owners; people who pass background checks easily. Mental illness, as you well know, has nothing to do with our gun problem.

That leads me to share something a bit more personal. Every time there is a shooting, and conservatives come out brushing it off as a mental health problems. Not only are they doing a disservice to the safety of our citizens, and insulting the lives of the dead, they are also insulting me. Me and every other person in America who has suffered from mental illness. Mr. President, I am 42 years old. I have suffered from depression, ADHD, and PTSD since my childhood. In fact, I know many Americans who suffer from these illnesses. However, much to the NRA’s disappointment, neither myself nor anyone I know who suffers from various forms of mental illness has ever had the urge to go out, get a gun, and kill someone. The only people we tend to want to hurt are ourselves, and for the most part, with a strong support system and treatment, we don’t let it get that far. You have started to say in your press conferences: ‘other countries don’t have this problem’ (gun violence). And you are 100% correct. They do not. But mental illness exists all over the world. Without guns, there are less gun deaths. With NRA propaganda and a distorted definition of the 2nd Amendment, we have let our society get completely out of control. Our job as a society is to put the REAL needs of the many above the PERCEIVED needs of the few, especially when it comes to the safety of our citizens. Guns owned by private citizens are used to kill and terrorize Americans, rarely to protect them. Guns in the home are a direct threat to the lives of women and children and also a direct threat to those suffering from mental illness.

Mr. President, on behalf of the 86 Americans that will die today at the hands of guns, and for the 31,000 Americans that will likely die this year from guns, I implore you. Take action. Take action now. Assemble a team, make a plan, and implement it with enough time to set the plan into motion before you leave office. Please remove guns from our society. It is not just a mission, but the responsibility of the leader of this nation. All of us level-headed people understand that the change will not be instant. But year after year, there will be less and less gun deaths. The change starting in year one will be among the most dramatic. The NRA likes to say that removing guns from society just puts guns in the hands of criminals… However what they don’t say is the truth: that so many of the current gun deaths come from people or families that have obtained guns legally and passed background checks. I did not wake up this morning and plan on writing this letter to you. We don’t know each other, but we have mutual friends. I hope to meet you someday. But I was compelled to write down this plea for your prompt and decisive action on this issue. Our society as a whole is blinded by NRA and conservative propaganda. But as the Commander-in-Chief you have both the ability and responsibility to protect our great nation from itself.

We are all counting on you!

Russell Wolff
US citizen since 1973