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Let’s Lead the Way on Gun Background Checks in New York


Senator Gianaris

Senator Gianaris, the author, with young people (photo via @SenGianaris)


72 hours.

That is how long one needs to wait for a background check before buying a high-capacity gun capable of mass slaughter. Three days is all it took for Dylann Roof to purchase his .45 caliber Glock and kill nine people who sat praying in Emanuel AME Zion Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof bought his gun without completing a background check because current law authorizes a gun purchase after three days, regardless of whether or not a background check has been completed. Roof, with his prior convictions, would have failed a background check and should not have been able to acquire his firearm. The victims should still be with their families today.  

Right here in New York, Jiverly Wong purchased a handgun in Binghamton in 2009 after three days, even though a background check – which may have prevented the purchase due to a history of mental health issues – was not completed. Just a month later, he walked into a naturalization class at a local community center and killed 13 people.

As the nation reels from another horrifying tragedy, this time in Parkland, Florida, thoughts and prayers are insufficient to stop future calamities. The time for action is at hand. Grieving teenagers mourning their classmates should not shoulder the burden of a nation; state and federal leaders must do something to prevent even more parents from burying their children.

In 2016, the federal government authorized more than 300,000 prospective gun purchases before background checks were completed. This means thousands of weapons in the hands of potentially dangerous people – those with criminal histories and mental illnesses, as well as domestic abusers.

In New York State, we can lead the way on avoiding these preventable tragedies: I introduced the Effective Background Check Act, legislation lengthening the waiting period for a background check from the current three days to a full 10, giving more time for checks to be completed and keeping weapons out of the hands of potential killers.

This effort is even more important now as the Trump administration seeks to reduce funding for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which would further slow the ability of the FBI to perform timely background checks. As Parkland parents buy caskets for their children instead of graduation gowns, Donald Trump needs to recognize this is the worst possible time to abdicate his responsibilities.

Leaders on all sides of the aisle must rally around the crisis our nation is facing: too many people are dying of preventable gun deaths. On average, 96 people die each day from guns. Because of background checks, we have stopped more than 3 million gun sales to prohibited people, saving countless lives. With a longer waiting period, we could save even more.

Could a few days’ time have made a difference in these tragedies? Could one of those more than 300,000 gun purchases in 2016 be the next mass shooting? Could one of those be the perpetrator of domestic violence against his or her partner or child? Are those extra hours worth saving the lives of innocent men, women, and children who may be gunned down in movie theaters, on street corners, or in their schools?

240 hours. That is how long a gun purchaser would need to wait to complete a background check if New York enacts my Effective Background Check Act. For all those whose lives were cut short by years, we owe them this extra time.

***
Michael Gianaris is a state senator representing the 12th Senate District, in Queens. On Twitter @SenGianaris.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]

Teaching Black History in Our Schools


blackpantherchallenge

Senator Jesse Hamilton, the author (middle)


Last summer, I hosted a hackathon for middle school students at Medgar Evers College. Picture 40 enthusiastic young people ready to learn about coding, computer science, and technology, along with CodeEd educators and the welcoming college staff.

In an effort to be as educational as possible, I like to do a little history quiz when we host young people. My quiz features questions like, “Who was the first African-American woman elected to Congress?” That day, I asked, “Who was Medgar Evers?” Silence. The question stumped nearly all the students.

Only one student could venture a reply on his Civil Rights Movement leadership. That lone reply is part of the reason I am advancing legislation to make black history instruction in our K-12 schools mandatory.

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently published a troubling report on schools teaching the history of slavery, “Teaching Hard History.” Among the most alarming findings, SPLC reports that two-thirds of high school seniors did not know it took a constitutional amendment to end slavery; 58 percent of teachers found their textbooks inadequate in teaching about slavery; the average textbook scored only 46 percent in SPLC’s assessment of what should be included in the study of American slavery; 40 percent of teachers believed their state offers insufficient support for teaching about slavery.

The SPLC’s analysis provides important data supporting the need to make black history instruction mandatory, mirroring my experience with the hackathon students and elsewhere.

Recent news reports underscore the necessity of this legislation. In one Bronx school, I.S. 224, the principal reportedly instructed an English teacher not to teach about the Harlem Renaissance. In another school, administrators refused to allow a student named Malcolm Xavier Combs to put “Malcolm X” on his senior sweater. In another instance, in Park Slope, the PTA included images of performers in blackface on advertisements for a 1920s themed fundraiser. Passing this law would send a clearly needed message of inclusion to all New Yorkers.

Black history’s importance extends far beyond a single month. From the abolitionists like Sojourner Truth, who broke barriers in advocacy and helped end slavery, to the Harlem Renaissance, home to literary and artistic dynamism we benefit from even today, to the pioneering achievements of Shirley Chisholm, who paved a path for future public servants of color, men and women alike, black history serves as part of our national heritage.

Our young people should engage with black history in thoughtful, age-appropriate ways, throughout their time as students. Black history provides a panoply of avenues across subject areas for K-12 students to explore, intersecting with social studies, English language arts, performing and visual arts, and more. I have every confidence that the Board of Regents and educators across various disciplines can successfully weave the richness of black history and New York’s unique place in black history into school curricula.

A crossroads for the world, New York’s Black History intersects with experiences of the Afro-Caribbean community, the Afro-Latino community, and the entire African diaspora. Under the provisions of my black history in schools proposal, the Board of Regents would be responsible for determining how Black History is best incorporated into students’ studies.

Sociologists point to the black experience being underrepresented overall in media, missing stories altogether, exaggeration of negative portrayals, and providing positive portrayals within only a narrow scope. These broader facts have consequences for young peoples’ development, self-esteem, expectations, and what figures are even available as role models. Requiring black history in schools is not a silver bullet, but it marks an important further development in chipping away at stultifying boundaries to opportunities.

I invite the public to join in support of an holistic effort to think about black history and participate in embracing a curriculum recognizing New York’s unique place in black history. New York is blessed with a rich variety of institutions that can contribute to making this inclusive move a success, the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, and all our museums, libraries, and numerous institutions of higher education can make valuable contributions to this effort.

This broader integration of black history into our schools is as important to our future as the coding and computer science those middle school students learned at Medgar Evers College. Such a curriculum leaves the boundaries of the schoolhouse and will help bolster New York students’ college- and career-readiness, engaging them, sharpening their skills, and preparing them for the diverse and dynamic communities they will lead their lives in.

***
Jesse Hamilton is a state senator representing Brooklyn’s 20th district. On Twitter @SenatorHamilton.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]

The Diversity Visa: A Ticket To A Better Life


Diversity

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


This past October my mom passed the United States citizenship exam. On November 7, she became a U.S. citizen. And this past December my dad passed the United States citizenship exam. On January 31, he became a U.S. citizen. Soon, my sisters and I will become U.S. citizens as well. None of this was guaranteed to us, and it almost didn’t happen.

My family is from Bangladesh. We moved to the United States in July 2011 through the Diversity Visa process, which is currently being called into question at the federal level, especially after a recent terrorist attack in New York City. The experience of my family -- me, my parents, and my two younger sisters -- is a testament to what the Diversity Visa program can do for people, and for the United States, a country we are proud to call home.

Simply put, the Diversity Visa changed our lives. It gave us a second chance. It allowed me to be where I am today: 15 years old and a tenth-grader in a New York City high school.  

In Bangladesh, my dad was a businessman, running a company called Nicos Digital Color Lab. Armed with a bachelor’s degree, he was also a self-taught photographer, and sometimes taught computer lessons to high school students. My mom has a master’s degree, and helped to support our home.  

Back in Bangladesh, there was a lot of pressure on my parents: my grandparents, two cousins, two uncles, and an aunt all lived with us in the same house. My dad paid all of our family’s expenses, and my mom cooked and took care of everyone. The entire family depended on my parents, and it put an obvious strain on their marriage. Things began to fall apart between my mom and my dad. Since they were the caretakers, though, no one much noticed.

One day, when my dad was in his Color Lab staring at his computer screen, one of his friends stopped by and asked for a cigarette. He told my dad to apply for the Diversity Visa to the U.S.

My dad laughed at first, “A common person like me, with no extraordinary talents, living in a small town in a country named Bangladesh, will get a visa to go to the United States?”

My dad’s friend smiled and told him to ask my mom to apply. “Your wife is your lucky charm. Her application will get accepted.” My parents quickly filled out an application under my mom’s name.

Soon after, we received a first letter notifying us that we had been selected, and then a second letter notifying us that we would be interviewed. After an extensive vetting process, we were approved. My mom, my sisters, and I were given a visa. A month later, my dad’s visa was approved as well. While the process may seem easy, it was not. It took time, preparation for the interviews, and anxiety until the visas were in hand.  

As we looked up airline tickets to go to the U.S., we realized we didn’t have enough money to get there. But, we soon found, miraculously, that our family was surrounded by supportive guardian angels. All my dad’s childhood best friends came to our rescue. They all contributed, not only helping to pay for our plane tickets, but providing extra money to survive in the U.S. as we started our new lives.  

After moving to the U.S. and gaining employment, my dad paid all their money back. But we will never be able to give back the generosity, kindness, and opportunity they gave us. I am forever grateful to my dad’s friends for helping to change our lives.

In the years since, we have established our lives in the U.S. It has not been easy. My father, a former businessman, works as a taxi driver. My mother, with her master’s degree, takes care of my sisters and me. We all go to school, studying for a better future for our family. But we feel so lucky to be living in the United States. It has changed our lives immeasurably.

If we were still in Bangladesh, I’m confident that my family would have fallen apart, and my parents might have separated. My sisters and I wouldn’t have been able to receive a proper education because education in Bangladesh costs so much. I wouldn’t be independent, navigating the subways of New York City on my own. I wouldn’t have my parents as close to me as they are to me right now, and they probably wouldn’t be able to give much time to my sisters and me as they do right now. My parents wouldn’t be able to financially support my grandparents and all their siblings as they do now.

Getting settled here in the United States was not easy; it still isn’t. Adjusting to the new environment around us, being away from our extended family, hearing threats because we are Muslims and people see us as foreigners. But life is better. And there is the possibility of an even better future. A future I work toward every day at school.

That is what the Diversity Visa has meant to me. A ticket to a better life.

The United States is my home. It always has been. I may not be born here, but I am an American. I love this country so much. The Diversity Visa changed my family’s life forever. For that for so many Americans to come, I pray we do not get rid of it.

***
Laila Dola is a high school student in Queens and a former member of the Generation Citizen Student Leadership Board.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]



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