When I was about to start eighth grade, my father almost shot my mother. It was another of their many ugly fights. I got between them — literally — and tried to grab the gun.
I will never forget that night. The shouting. The fear. The raw terror that we would all die, my brother and sisters along with my parents. My calling for help but the police not coming; my parents were important people in town. My mother running out of the house. I locked my brother and sisters in a bedroom and pushed a bed against the door. My father broke in, took the door off the hinges and pulled the phone from the wall. He took the knobs off all the doors, so we could not get out and no one could get in.
We survived that occasion, physically. Emotionally, I am not so sure. My baby sister, Mary Grace, was supposed to start first grade the next day. I walked her to school because I believed in trying to be normal, to keep everything together. She died several years ago, after suffering all of her life from demons that haunted her. I cannot help but think that that night was the source of many of them.
Every child deserves to feel safe. No child should have to worry about guns and violence and whether something bad could happen to him or her. To this day, I can feel that panic and anxiety, and I would do anything to shield others from it.
For most of my life, I have lived with guns. My father owned handguns and rifles. He showed them to us and taught us gun safety, and he used them, for good and bad.
He didn't mean to scare or endanger us, but he suffered from depression and his access to those guns at the wrong moments was not a good thing. Later in life, with treatment, he became a different person, but one I could never quite forgive.
My husband, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., is a former board member of the National Rifle Association and a lifelong supporter of the right to bear arms. My stepson believes even more strongly than his father in that Second Amendment right. They are two of the most responsible, safety-conscious gun owners anyone could ever know. Their dedication to the right to bear arms, to hunt, to compete in rifle and skeet matches, and to protect themselves and their families has been passed down from generation to generation.
This belief is as central to them as the freedom of speech and religion. As a result of knowing them, I have come to respect and understand the importance of this right in ways I did not used to understand, certainly not as a scared child. The ability to defend oneself is a human right that ensures the protection of other basic rights.
Since this month's shootings, our country is once again shocked at another tragedy for which there is no rationalization or explanation. Unless we change the conversation, we will not find the answers.
Demonizing the NRA or gun owners in general gets us nowhere. A fresh round of old proposals for gun control laws won't work and will be followed by the renewed frustration of different factions going to their respective corners to fight instead of seeking real solutions.
We, as Americans, need to be willing to acknowledge that we have serious social problems and have to get at the root causes for so many of these horrific scenes: mental illness, failing educational systems, lack of job opportunities, the disintegration of families. We need communities more willing to identify behavioral problems early on, to express zero tolerance for bullying, to implement processes that protect individual liberties yet flag potential problems.
Most important, we must remove the stigma of mental illness so that those who need help get help. We need law enforcement agencies that understand problems when they are identified, along with systems that support parents, teachers and employers in intervening and getting help to those who need it.
I don't have all the answers, but I know two things. Decades later, I still feel the fear of that night when I was 12 years old. And while ordinary Americans do not need access to assault weapons, I also know that banning all guns won't "fix" the problem. We need a new dialogue that doesn't pit people against each other but that focuses on how we all work together so that all Americans, especially our children, can feel and know they are safe.
Debbie Dingell is a member of the Democratic National Committee and president of D2 Strategies.
© 2012 Washington Post