“Even the smallest action can make a difference…”

Here at Bullet Counter Points we like to highlight the exceptional work that everyday Americans are doing to prevent gun violence in their communities. Today we focus on a nurse/attorney/writer from New York who became involved with this issue after the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.

In 1980, Robyn Ringler was employed as a nurse at George Washington University Hospital. In December of that year, she and her fellow staff suffered a tremendous shock when a beloved cardiologist at the hospital, Dr. Michael J. Halberstam, was shot and killed by an escaped convict. That night, Robyn said, “was one of my worst as a nurse.” And questions about Halberstam’s killer began to form in her mind: “How did that guy get a gun?” she thought. “How could we as a society allow this to happen?”

Then, on March 30, 1981, President Reagan was shot and wounded by a deranged individual, John Hinckley, Jr., while leaving the Washington Hilton Hotel. As Robyn describes it:

“The experience was exciting, scary, exhilarating, and eye-opening. When President Reagan was rushed to the emergency room at the hospital with a gunshot wound to the chest, I had no idea I would take care of him. But after surgery and a stint in the intensive care unit, he was brought to the medical/surgical unit where I was an assistant head nurse. The first two evenings, he was in terrible shape—his breathing was labored, he spiked a fever and became disoriented. We administered intravenous antibiotics and chest physical therapy and monitored his vital signs and the blood drainage from his chest tube. When I spoke to the president to offer reassurance, the gray-white color of his face scared me. I thought there was a good chance he would die.”

Each morning, the Washington Post would quote a hospital spokesman who said how well the president was doing. But, as Robyn notes, “It simply wasn’t true. The president was fighting for his life and the country was kept in the dark. I gained a quality I had never had before—skepticism—and learned to always question things.”

And again, the most haunting question of all was:“How could a guy like John Hinckley, with a history of severe mental illness, have gained access to a gun?”

Ringler New PhotoIt wasn’t until the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, however, that Robyn would become actively involved as a volunteer in the gun violence prevention field. As she recalls it: “When Columbine happened, I was a mom. I could see that shootings like this could happen to any child, including my own. It was a devastating realization.” On Mother’s Day 2000, Robyn would join 750,000 other Americans on the National Mall during the Million Mom March. “Marching on Washington with thousands of others who agreed that we needed change—in the form of sensible gun laws—was a life-changing experience,” says Ringler. “I returned home and immediately joined New Yorkers Against Gun Violence (NYAGV), becoming the leader of the capital district chapter and a board member. We lobbied at the New York State Capitol for safe gun laws and had some huge successes under Governor George Pataki.”

One of Robyn’s next experiences, writing a blog about gun violence for the Albany Times Union, was not as positive. In her words, it “was one of the most disheartening experiences I’ve ever had. Most of the comments I received were so mean and lacking in compassion and empathy it was hard to believe people would write such things. Death threats were common. When I wrote about children dying from gun violence, responders wrote that inner city children were not really children, but rather thugs and monsters. Racism and prejudice seemed to motivate a lot of the comments.”

Recently, Robyn opened an independent bookshop in upstate New York, adding bookseller to her long list of professions. But she remains active with NYAGV and the League of Women Voters and continues to write editorials and letters to the editor on the subject on gun violence prevention.

Can Robyn imagine a future free from gun violence? Yes, she says. “If every person, whether they believe in the right to unfettered gun ownership or not, took action to help other human beings, we could go a long way toward ending gun violence. We need to obliterate the poverty, lack of educational opportunities, and hopelessness that feed gun violence and help it grow. And we need to maintain safe gun laws that will keep guns out of the hands of children, the mentally ill, criminals, and others who should not have them.”

Robyn cites the collective power of people of good faith. “Even the smallest action can make a difference if everyone decides to take that action together,” she says. “I believe in that.”

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