A Truly Heroic Speech

Six-year-old Benjamin Wheeler was one of the victims of the 14 December 2012 shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Recently, Benjamin’s father, David Wheeler, gave testimony at a public hearing before the Connecticut State Legislature’s Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety.

It was a truly heroic speech.

As a father of two, I shudder to think what Mr. Wheeler, his wife and the relatives of all those slain children and teachers must have experienced that fateful day, and what they must now endure. And that makes Mr. Wheeler’s speech all the more courageous, all the more remarkable.

  • He spoke passionately and yet was able to control his own emotions.
  • He spoke without bitterness, preferring instead to focus on the problem of gun violence and offer specific, balanced recommendations for action.
  • He spoke simply and clearly, pausing for emphasis, and looking the members of the Panel squarely in the eyes.
  • He concluded by invoking one of the fundamental principles from the Declaration of Independence and making an incredibly powerful argument as to how it must be interpreted:

“Thomas Jefferson described our inalienable rights as life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness – the rights with which we are endowed, for the protection of which we have instituted governments. I do not think the composition of that foundational phrase was an accident. I do not think the order of those important words was haphazard or casual. The liberty of any person to own a military-style assault weapon and a high-capacity magazine and keep them in their home, is second to the right of my son to his life – his life; to the right to live of all of those children and those teachers, to the right to the lives of your children, of you, of all of us – all of our lives – it is second. Let’s honor the founding documents and get our priorities straight. Thank you.”

Mr. Wheeler, you have my utmost respect and admiration, and I sincerely hope that your words are taken seriously – and acted upon – by your officials in the United States.

I’m sorry that you had to give that speech. My sincere condolences for your loss and my best wishes for happier days ahead.

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About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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14 Responses to A Truly Heroic Speech

  1. Pingback: A Truly Heroic Speech | Manner of Speaking « The Turning Spiral

  2. Pingback: 5:14 am. And Inspired. – Lead.Learn.Live.

  3. Great post, John.

    Besides education about the gun issue, your post demonstrates how public speaking helps to fight for what is really important.

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  4. David Caceres says:

    John, thanks a lot for highlighting this unprecedented speech, full of courage, dignity, sense and clarity. My hope is that people with the necessary power have the wisdom to make the given advice happen.

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  5. A statement that hits the spot. As for the debate on gun safety, it (like so many issues) has become an emotional debate. Similar to climate change, interests don’t want to view the issue based on data, statistics, and hard facts. No, too often emotions steer our “thought” process.

    I’m somewhat jaded and believe more and more that reason has been subordinated to pathos.

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    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for the comment, John.

      Pathos certainly has its place in a debate (on some subjects more than others) but when pathos starts to override logos and ethos, it set the entire framework for a good speech that Aristotle established millennia ago off kilter. In fact, your comment reminds me of something one of our late Canadian Prime Ministers, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, said: “Reason before passion.”

      Cheers!

      John

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  6. And this is also a well thought out speech from someone who acknowledges that because she followed the law, the same one that was supposed to protect the school and Mr. Wheeler’s children – instead caused their deaths because no one was available or able to stop the person who committed the atrocities there.
    http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2013/01/22/suzanna-hupp-guns

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    • John Zimmer says:

      Thank you for the sharing the article. Suzanna Hupp spoke forcefully and persuasively. She is to be commended like David Wheeler for putting aside any personal bitterness for such a terrible personal tragedy and focusing on the issues at hand.

      On the issue of gun control, however, I must respectfully disagree with the conclusions that you draw. Your country — I assume you are American — is a great one, but you have a serious problem with your fixation on guns. Gun ownership per capita in the US is something like 90 guns for every 100 people according to the most recent statistics that I have seen. No. 2, at 55 guns per 100 people is Yemen. Yemen! A semi-lawless state where the ruling government is facing its own Arab Spring and Al-Qaeda is known to operate. Switzerland, where I now live, is No. 3 and is at half the rate of the US.

      The whole situation has gone off kilter because over the years, vested interests were able to promote the fiction that general gun ownership was somehow a constitutional right guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment. That Amendment reads as follows: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” (Emphasis added.) The entire premise for gun ownership, as envisioned by your Founders, was that it should be within a well-regulated militia, not by every man, woman or child on the street. This was completely understandable: you had just fought a revolutionary war and were wary that the English might try to win back what they had lost.

      But the whole notion of the militia was disregarded and was finally thrown under the bus by the US Supreme Court in a highly controversial 5-4 split decision in 2008. It was clearly a partisan decision (and yes, you have had partisan decisions cutting both ways over the years) but in my respectful view, and speaking as a lawyer, it was a bad one. Justice Stevens, in his dissent, put the matter simply: “When each word in the text is given full effect, the Amendment is most naturally read to secure to the people a right to use and possess arms in conjunction with service in a well-regulated militia. So far as appears, no more than that was contemplated.”

      Since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, less than three months ago, somewhere between 1,300 and 1,500 more people in the United States have died from gunshot wounds (intentional, accidental or suicidal). From what I can see, the rate shows no signs of slowing down. So I am sorry, but I disagree with your position. Your country has a serious problem with guns and throwing more guns at the problem is not the way to solve it. I wish you and your fellow citizens the best of luck in finding a solution.

      John Zimmer

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      • Thank you for the well written and logical response. There are so many that simply spout emotional phrases on both sides. I wish you the best and thank you for the great communication resource.

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        • John Zimmer says:

          I appreciate your answer. You are right: knee-jerk answers from either side will not help at all.

          All the best in return. You are welcome on this blog any time.

          John

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  7. Couldn’t agree more – and beautifully said too!

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