Children's Defense Fund Founder Blasts Gun Violence: "We've Got to Retire the NRA"

Marian Wright Edelman - H 2015
Courtesy of Children’s Defense Fund

Marian Wright Edelman made her way to the podium with a mission.

After less than three minutes of thank yous — showing gratitude to those inside the Beverly Wilshire Ballroom who have helped her national child advocacy organization, the Children's Defense Fund, on its way to Thursday night's 25th annual Beat the Odds Awards ceremony — Edelman, the first speaker of the night, delivered a seven-minute speech that she read from folded pieces of white paper. And she didn't hold back.

"This is not a happy time altogether," stated CDF founder Edelman, joined at the event by co-chairs J.J. Abrams and wife Katie McGrath, CAA's Kevin Huvane and emcee Conan O'Brien. "We are all seeing so much of the killing of children and I'm sick of the guns in this country. We've got to do whatever we have to do to stop it."

The American activist and close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton then recited words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. following President Kennedy's assassination in 1963. "He said while the question of who killed President Kennedy was important, the question of what killed President Kennedy was even more critical," remembered Edelman, who didn't reference the most recent tragedy in the U.S., the killing of 14 people in San Bernardino, California, on Dec. 2, though it was clear she was including the news in her mission. "Dr. King believed ... that the answer was that this President was assassinated by a morally inclement climate. He said this is a climate filled with heavy torrents of false accusations of jostling winds of hatred, of raging storms of violence. He says this is a climate where men cannot disagree without being disagreeable, and where (they) express dissent through violence and murder."

It's a climate that would soon kill King, Edelman said. After his death, Robert Kennedy delivered a speech in Cleveland (on April 5, 1968) that is relevant today. "He said that we've got to deal with the mindless menace of violence in America, which again stains our land and every one of our lives. It is not, he said, the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. No one where he lives can be certain who will suffer from the solemn, mindless, senseless, action of bloodshed and it goes on and on and on in this country of ours.

"Since Robert Kennedy spoke these words, over a million and a half Americans have died — men, women and children — from guns. This loss of American lives is more than all the battle casualties in all the major wars in our history. Our greatest enemy does not come from without, it comes from within."

Edelman then laid out statistics to prove the urgency of a solution. For example, she said that a child is killed or injured by a gun every half hour, American children are 15-17 times more likely to die from gunfire than their peers in 25 other industrialized countries combined, and that the U.S. loses more preschool children every year to gun violence than law enforcement officers in the process of doing their jobs.

"We can do better than this. We can love our children more than this," she said.

How? A good place to start, Edelman noted, is by implementing what she called "common sense measures that we know can be effective."

"We've got to retire the NRA from being in charge of our national defense," she said to rousing applause. "And the first thing we need (to do is) recognize gun violence as the major public health issue that it is. We need to challenge the NRA blocking the research every year to document all of these fatalities and the causes behind it, and we need to have public education campaigns."

Other solutions she outlined included pushing elected officials toward regulation of the gun industry, and if "they vote the wrong way" they must be pushed out of office. "(Guns) are the only unregulated consumer product. We regulate toy guns, we regulate children's pajamas and we don't regulate something that kills a child every half hour," she claimed. "I just wanted to simply say that a country that doesn't stand up and keep its children safe and keep their parents safe does not stand for anything. ... America has to come to her senses."

After finishing her passionate speech and call to action, Edelman received a standing ovation. It was one of many during the emotional evening, which honored five Los Angeles high school "stars." Those students each received a turn in the spotlight during the event courtesy of a video presentation directed by an entertainment notable.

The 2015 honorees included Vincent Zamarripa (directed by Elena Dorfman), David Sanchez (directed by Tim Guinee), NiTasha Denson (directed by Thembi Banks), David Cho (directed by John Cho), and Stephanie Gamino (directed by Mary Wigmore). John Cho was in attendance, along with presenters and guests Andy Richter, Jussie SmollettJurnee Smollett-BellGwendoline Christie, Mary McCormack and Margaret Qualley.

Each student will receive a $10,000 college scholarship and CDF support services including private tutoring, one-on-one college counseling, ongoing mentoring, internship placements, life skills development, SAT prep and week-long college tours.

O'Brien delivered one of the lighter moments of the night, kicking off his hosting gig by cracking a joke about co-chair Abrams, who likely enjoyed the evening respite from Star Wars: The Force Awakens promotion. O'Brien told the ballroom crowd that the filmmaker would make himself available at the end of the night by standing at the valet stand and answering everyone's Star Wars questions.

"You can ask as many questions as you want. No question is too inane or too trivial," he laughed, before delivering a jab at the entertainment industry. "This is my favorite night of the year. In a town that loves to celebrate itself, tonight we celebrate young men and women who have overcome incredible odds and really deserve to be honored. That is rare. In fact, this night makes me feel ashamed of every other awards show I have ever attended — especially the Grammys. Those people are scum."

Quite the opposite are O'Brien's own children — Beckett and Neve — whom he brought to the event for the first time since he's been in attendance (six years) because he "wanted them to see what is possible when you work hard and believe in yourself."

Conan O'Brien poses with Beat The Odds scholars Stephanie Gamino, David Cho, David Sanchez, NiTasha Denson, and Vincent Zamarripa at the 25th Annual Beat The Odds Awards at Beverly Wilshire on Dec. 3. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images for Children's Defense Fund)

Co-Chairs J.J. Abrams and Katie McGrath attend Children's Defense Fund-California's 25th Annual Beat The Odds Awards at Beverly Wilshire on Dec. 3. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images for Children's Defense Fund)