The good that has come from a Beaufort tragedy

in Bill Rauch/Contributors/Voices by

The Rauch Report

By Bill Rauch

The numbers show the difference Beaufort’s Betsey Robinson (1945-2015) made.

In 1989 her 13 year-old son, Reynolds, was accidentally shot and killed by a nine year-old neighbor who was playing with his family’s .22 rifle. The tragedy was the impetus for Betsey to take on the cause of children and gun safety. Reynolds’ death, Betsey knew, had been a preventable tragedy and she did not want other families to have to suffer as she and her family had. One life saved would be worth the effort.

Betsey Robinson
Betsey Robinson

In 1990, 10 more South Carolina children (aged 0-17) were killed by the accidental discharge of a firearm, according to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s (DHEC) statistics. That was the year Betsey set her strategy.

From 1990 through 1994, Betsey Robinson crisscrossed South Carolina, traveled up and down the coast to Washington and anywhere someone would listen quietly promoting her Children’s Firearm Protection Act, a proposed new South Carolina state law that would, along with some mandatory educational aspects, make it a misdemeanor for an adult to leave a gun unsecured, if that gun is then used by a minor to injure someone.

The purpose of the proposed law was to get South Carolinians to keep their guns locked up when they weren’t using them. In the five-year period from 1990 to 1994, according to DHEC’s figures, 50 South Carolina youngsters were killed by the accidental discharge of firearms, or 10 young lives lost per year.

Getting the new law passed was an uphill fight from the start, a fight that came to a head in 1995. That year, Betsey’s husband Bill says, the effort took over Betsey’s life. She went everywhere and talked to everyone trying to cobble together enough votes to get the bill through the South Carolina House. She told her story. She told Reynolds’ story. She told the stories of other families who had lost a child. Again and again she told the stories. She worked tirelessly in 1995, and for a mom who had lost a child this was a wrenching kind of public work where all her emotions were on the table. There were stories in the papers, interviews on television, and features in magazines. Everyone, pro and con, was talking about it.

That year, according to DHEC, 11 more South Carolina children were killed by the accidental discharge of a firearm.

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 11.25.54 AMAs the 1995 legislative session drew to a close it became clear the coalition Betsey put together would be unable to beat the National Rifle Association (NRA) who, according to Betsey’s son, Clark Robinson, had made stopping the new law a 1995 priority. “Whenever Mom would reflect on this she would talk about the NRA as the main obstacle to her efforts,” he recalled last week, drawing the distinction between gun control — that he does not favor — and gun safety that he does. Like many Beaufort youngsters, Clark Robinson grew up hunting and fishing with his dad. In the fall it was deer season, followed by ducks in the winter with an occasional dove shoot thrown into the mix. Clark and his dad, Bill, know guns and they do not favor limiting their use. But they are careful to lock them up when they aren’t using them.

The great battle ended, as these things do, with a whimper. Betsey was unable to gather up the votes, and so she had lost. And defeated is certainly how she felt as she returned home to Beaufort, to Bill, to go back to working at the church, to go back to reading to children in the schools, and to be a loving grandmother in the ensuing years to her 12 grandchildren.

But DHEC’s numbers don’t tell the story of a defeat. In 1996, the number of South Carolina children who were killed by the accidental discharge of a firearm dropped to seven. In 1997, it was five. By 2000, it was two, and since then six is the highest number it has reached. Thus in broad terms it can be said the frequency of these tragedies has been cut more than in half since 1995. The figures tell a particularly dramatic story because South Carolina’s population grew by roughly 25 percent from 1990-2010, from 3.4 million in 1990 to 4.6 million in 2010, according to the U.S. Census’ figures.

Francis Rushton, a Beaufort pediatrician for 32 years, a former president of the South Carolina Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a key part of Betsey Robinson’s Children’s Firearm Protection Act coalition continues to follow the children with guns issue. “Both the Robinsons and I were astonished to realize that although our legislation never passed, the gun owning public appeared to have listened to the public health message,” Dr. Rushton explained last week. “The gun owning public has become much more safety conscious about the issues with children and firearms, and there is a decrease in the number of firearms that children come into contact with.”

Betsey Robinson’s legacy, The Children’s Firearm Protection Act campaign, as we view it now, was a textbook case of effective public advocacy. The message was right. The messenger and the level of her intensity were right. The time was right. And even if ultimately the politics were wrong for getting the bill passed, the public education that resulted from the effort stuck, and the message took on a life of its own with pediatricians, teachers, pastors and parents picking up what Betsey started.

“This effort took a lot of Mom’s time,” Clark Robinson added last week. “From time to time she talked about quitting. But then in 1995 she said ‘I’m going to give it my all for just this one more year.’”

The numbers show that there have now been about a hundred South Carolina children whose lives were saved because Betsey Robinson didn’t quit. We, and they, don’t know who these children are. But they are out there today playing in schoolyards, going camping and hunting and fishing with their families, and bringing joy to their grandparents. Moreover, because of her efforts and the efforts of those who took up her cause the lives of more South Carolina youngsters are saved each year. That is the difference, it is now clear, that Betsey Robinson made.