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Columns | Spring 2015

Thoughts to Chew

Gun Control

About a year and a half ago at a Grammy luncheon in Los Angeles I got to visit with my buddy Bill Harley. Bill and I released an album together in 1989, In the Hospital. It's a collection of songs and stories to help children cope with a hospital stay, and a guide book for parents and caregivers to help them understand how best to support children in a medical setting. We won the Parents’ Choice Award that year for best children's album.

Bill gave a performance at the luncheon and a talk about how he felt compelled to do something about the rash of school shootings. We both felt upset and wanted to do something, but were unsure about how best to proceed. For most of us who perform and work with kids and families, the National Rifle Association’s push-back against any kind of gun control, and the lack of national leadership or a clear plan about how to keep gun violence out of schools and away from children, are tangibly painful. There was a lot of support for Bill's talk. I thought this would be a great subject for my Thoughts to Chew column, so I spoke with him recently and asked him to talk about his thoughts regarding this situation.

Bill: This gun issue has bothered me a long time, and it’s overwhelming. Every time it comes up we think something’s going to happen, but it doesn’t. One of our own CMN members lost a child in Newtown. I’ve worked in that town. The Monday morning after the shooting, I was presenting at a school in Providence, Rhode Island, where I’m the artist in residence, and everyone at my school was in shock. The teachers came up and said, “We're so glad you’re here! We know this is a good way for us to start today.”

Everyone was so fragile. I stood in front of those people and I said, “This is ridiculous that we have to go through this again. I’m ashamed and it’s so troubling.” I was struggling to find the right songs to sing, and I said to myself, “I really have to do something about this.”

I’ve talked with a number of my peers—people who work with kids—and many of them have had a similar experience. They’ve stood up in front of school children and teachers after one of these shootings, and thought, ‘There’s no reason that couldn’t have happened here too.” We are a very armed culture, and when we understand that fact, it’s just ridiculous to think it doesn’t increase the possibility of violence happening here. I don’t really have anything against hunters, that’s not the issue with me, but I do I think we need to wrestle with this gun ownership thing. The population, by and large, is for making us safer.

Peter: So what might we do to make it safer?

Bill: For some reason I look on what we all do as “public health,” aside from humor and all that stuff. I always ask myself, “What’s our job in creating a caring culture in a school, or a family, or in a community?” And one of my instincts or insights as an organizer is that we don’t have to actually know what we’re going to do; we just have to do something and see what happens. So, as I thought about it I said, “I’m going to come up with some kind of statement and then ask people what they can to do to help.”

Peter: What would this statement say?

Bill: Well it’s not just from me. The question is, what do we have to say as a group? We need a statement that people will agree upon and sign, and then offer a number of suggestions for taking action. We can say, ‘If you’re willing to sign this statement, which of these things will you actually do?” And we’ll create a list of eight or ten things they might do.

Peter: We have terrific songwriters and storytellers who might want to write a song or story to help model ways that teachers or parents or kids can take action.

Bill: It’s confusing because one of the artist’s jobs is to name things. There’s no doubt about that. You and I have both written a number of songs dealing with kids and violence that are written in “kid-speak”, right? And a lot of those things apply when it comes to this issue of gun violence. But when I do a concert, my job is to build a community with the people who are there, to form some kind of common experience. I don’t feel like it’s my job on stage to stand up and speak for this stuff. The history of prophets shows us lots of people who felt stuck in what we call “the prophetic stance.” They said, “No, I really don’t actually want to do this. I’m not interested. Why don’t you do it?” And then, “Well, okay…I'll do it.”

Sometimes as performers we do that. Peter, actually you do it more than others, but sometimes we can’t help ourselves. We stand up on stage and speak out against something, and if we don’t do that really well, we know we may be dividing the audience. So right now my gut on this issue is that “this discussion happens with adults.” I put out a kind of call to action at the last Children’s Music Network conference and we had a bunch of people sign on. I talked about it briefly and I drafted this letter that I recently sent out to them to get some ideas.

Dear friends,
Thanks for signing on and showing your interest in doing something about the issue of gun safety. I have your name from the list at the CMN gathering as someone who’s interested in helping. If for some reason you didn’t sign up for that, let me know, and we won’t bother you about this. I’ve been slowly (very slowly) putting a list of names together and thinking about what the steps might be. With a little more work, we’ll have a critical mass to move forward.

Like you, I have a lot of things on my plate, and need to be careful about my time commitments. This is a long haul project; we can’t turn the tide by ourselves. But we will be there to encourage the tide to turn, because we’ve been thinking about it.

At this point, I’m looking for a couple more people to be on an advisory and support board to design and implement some simple steps. I have ideas in mind, but would rather work with a group of people on that. If you're interested in being on that board/committee, please email me at info@billharley.com. I know some of you have already expressed interest. Thanks for that.

At the start of the New Year, I’ll be back in touch with you all to let you know our plans. Until then, please feel free to let me know your interest, or any thoughts on the issue.


Peter: That’s great Bill. Count me in! What kind of impact do you think this will have on removing some of the roadblocks to change?

Bill: I don’t know Peter, but we’ve got to try something. I tried to contact a bunch of the gun safety organizations, and it was very frustrating, because their response was mostly, “Do you want to send us money?” I tried a bunch of different ways to contact people, and I didn’t get anywhere.

I talked to Si Kahn about it. He's our “organizer guy.” He said, “Don’t even worry about the ‘big guys.’ Our job is just getting the word out to people we know, find some simple things we can do with them, and not worry about the outcomes.” Our standing up for this is not going to make everybody stand up and say, “Oh my God! We never thought of that! Let’s do it!” But we’ll be part of taking one more step in the right direction, one more group of people who will be part of that critical mass. When the time is right, our voice is going to make a difference.

Peter: For the last couple of years, I worked with an incredible woman, Lori Haas, from the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. They have forty-seven national organizations who pull together to keep people focused on reducing gun violence.

Bill: Yeah, I’ve talked to a lot of people about this too. I’ve had some great talks with Stuart Stotts. He said, “We should focus on how gun violence affects children. That’s our area of concern; we shouldn’t get lost in all the other ancillary issues.” That’s helped form some of my thinking. Plenty of people say, “Yeah, I’m with you!” But then I also got a bunch of comments from people who are quite the opposite and very vociferous, and they were very organized. They would respond as soon as they heard something contrary to their point of view, and then they went after it with very, very strong feelings. Our Congress people don’t speak up because they’re afraid. It’s scary for people to speak up on this issue, even though we feel it very strongly.

Peter: Speaking out through our music about something that’s controversial is difficult, because even though we feel strongly about kids’ safety, doing so brings up lots of related questions, like “Is it appropriate for me to bring up gun control at one of my school concerts?” or “If I mention this from the stage, maybe some of the parents or staff won’t like what I’m saying and I could loose jobs or sales. Do I want to take that chance?”

Bill: I don’t view myself as a leader. I just have to say something about it. I’m hoping our community can discuss some of these kinds of questions. As long as the politics are the way they are, it’s going to be hard to actually get changes made, so for me, it’s a matter of conscience. It’s not going away, so I am committed to working on it. Sometimes we just have to start.

Peter: It’s kind of like this column Bill: we can “chew thoughts” forever. Sometimes we need to take action and swallow, eh?