Opinion: Start real, honest conversation about gun violence

Thanksgiving is two weeks away, and with the delicious food and family time come the dreaded political conversations.

Whether they're with your eccentric uncle about how Donald Trump will somehow survive the countless charges against him unscathed or whether the GOP will abandon Ukraine, these conversations are important to have because they open the door for other conversations about issues much closer to home.

Voices for a Safer Tennessee, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to advocating for common sense gun laws, wants to ensure that those conversations are happening in Tennessee.

Board Chair Todd Cruse and member Katy Dieckhaus sat down with the Times Free Press editorial board to discuss the organization's mission.

Dieckhaus, mother of 9-year-old Evelyn Dieckhaus who was killed in The Covenant School shooting last March in Nashville, began her journey with the nonprofit after feeling called to be a part of this polarizing issue.

"There can be so much divisiveness, and it really shouldn't be that way. We're talking about responsibility and safety, not taking rights away from people," she said. She is led with the belief that everyone, regardless of where they are in the political structure, can work together.

The red and blue lens through which most people see this issue is what keeps us from making positive change. Through the pain suffered from losing a loved one via gun violence, Dieckaus and others have traded in that partisan lens for one that only wants to see results.

Tennessee has done a mild job, at best, in doing so.

The three strategies that the organization has prioritized in Tennessee are background checks, secure gun storage and temporary transfer, known more commonly as red flag laws. While state lawmakers have passed laws to support gun safety, such as making gun safe purchases tax free, they balked at even debating laws such as temporary transfer.

Gun violence, here and across the country, has gotten to a critical point. Do our state lawmakers really understand what gun violence is doing to our culture? To too many grieving families?

It's time to get honest.

An honest conversation

When out advocating for gun safety measures, Deickus reminds people she talks with that Tennessee needs a conversation about the entire problem the state has with guns.

"Sometimes people just assume I might be talking about school shootings. I'm talking about gun violence, and firearm violence in general," she said.

Tennessee is in the midst of a gun violence crisis that hits our kids the hardest.

According to the Tennessee Health Department's 2023 Child Fatality Report, in 2021 firearm deaths were the leading external cause of death among children. Between 2017 and 2021, homicide among youth increased by 19%; 93% of firearm-related deaths were also classified as preventable, according to the health department report.

And we cannot forget the significance of suicide in our state: 54% of suicides committed were done by a firearm, according to the report (86% of deaths by suicide were "probably preventable," according to the report). These tragedies can steer conversations that we need to have.

It's time we start getting on the same page.

Committed to the conversation

Dieckhaus will spend her life advocating for gun safety, honoring the memory of her daughter. The loss that she feels is felt by thousands of other Tennesseans who've lost a loved one to gun violence.

But these families can't do it alone, nor should we expect them to lead on this issue alone. We all have a voice and should use it to spread awareness.

It takes an honest conversation and open minds to understand that we do not need another shooting to bring us to the reality that the time to act is now.

There can be a conversation between a middle-aged gun owner who wants his 2nd Amendment rights protected and the 18-year-old recent high school grads whose biggest relief is that they don't have to be worried about being a victim of a school shooting. If we can't empathize with the anxiety and fear that these teenagers feel, we are setting up future generations for failure.

There is a truth that Tennesseans have to come to: Gun violence must be reduced.

It will take many conversations.

For the families of the victims of the Covenant shooting, let's have those difficult conversations. Ask questions of that eccentric uncle and see what you can agree on. Find common ground and go from there.

That's the least we can do for the lives stolen in this public health crisis.