Editor's note: Terri Francis is an associate professor in the Department of African American Studies and the Film Studies Program at Yale University. She is also a Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project.
(CNN) -- President Obama took a great first step in making our country safer Wednesday when he signed executive actions to reduce gun violence and urged Congress to reinstate the 2004 assault weapons ban.
But the president's actions do not let the rest of us off the hook. Each one of us needs to decide on our own how we will participate in shaping our country's future.
Let the families of Newtown grieve. The rest of us need to get to work.
In 2003, my cousin's 15-year-old son was shot and killed by a robber. My cousin found solidarity with other parents whose children had been snatched by gun violence, making instant activists out of moms and dads.
As I thought of the parents of Newtown over the past month, steeped in their grief, I realized how little I know, how little I have ever wanted to know, about the circumstances surrounding the gun death closest to me. I don't know what kind of gun was used to murder my own relative. Even if I did, what would it mean to me?
I've never owned a gun nor have I ever touched one. I have never even knowingly been in the presence of one. I have taken false and selfish comfort in believing that guns and the chaos connected to them were worlds away. Not wanting to wade into the debate around gun control, my position on guns has been one of naivety and willed ignorance.
But I won't avoid it any longer.
It is much easier to cry in front of my television and feel helpless than to learn what these weapons are, what they do and what I can do to make events like Newtown, Aurora, Tuscon and Virginia Tech less likely to happen again.
My relationship to my community needs to be one but of action.
I have to learn the names and capacities of assault style rifles as I would learn the names and potencies of common poisons for my own safety. A semiautomatic handgun can theoretically shoot 1,500 rounds in seven minutes if a shooter could possible manage it. The Bushmaster M4 Types Carbine, a semiautomatic rifle, uses a 20 or 30-round magazine.
It may seem daunting to enter into the fray of a heated issue, to shape public opinion and to push our elected officials to substantive change, but we've done it before.
In the 1960s, everyday people, from maids to college students and church members, said "enough is enough" to the back of the bus, separate water fountains and segregated lunch counters. Nearly two decades later, a mother who lost her child to a drunken driver launched the organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving and led the country to enduring cultural and legislative transformation to stop drunken driving and to institute stricter alcohol policies.
Voices of the people played a role in the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968 and public opinion pushed Congress to pass the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.
Our voices count.
Yes, civil discourse can be uncivil. But don't let toxic Internet trolls and television zealots stop you from participating in this vital public discussion.
The grieving families of Newtown and the grieving families of the hundreds of people who will have died from gun shootings since Sandy Hook will be conscripted to the front lines of the gun control debate. But we can't let them fight it on their own.
Because the truth is, when an average of eight children die from gun violence every day in this country, nobody is left untouched by a shooting death. Eventually, that evil will make its mark, directly or indirectly, on all of us.
In the wake of the one-month anniversary of the Newtown shootings, the country's grief over mass shootings, one-on-one gun violence and unintentional gun deaths weighs so heavily on our collective conscience that once again the nation seems ready to take action.
Yes, our elected officials must lead and we must hold them accountable if they don't. But we must do our part as well. We have to organize and shape public opinion to make it easier for the president and Congress to do what they must.
We can start by educating ourselves. Know what these weapons of mass destruction do, know who is trying to stop research on gun safety, know what organizations are pushing for more comprehensive bans. Once we're educated, we can educate our friends and families and build a groundswell, home by home, street by street and block by block.
Because that is what this is going to take. It's going to take all of us.
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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Terri Francis.