Gun violence is a hallmark of the American West. It's as if bloodletting by firearm is hard-wired, as natural as breathing.
Sunday's execution-style murders of four Lakewood police officers at the Forza coffee shop in unincorporated Pierce County echoed the horror of the Oct. 31 slaying of Seattle police officer Timothy Brenton. How do we make sense of the senseless? As Elie Wiesel wrote years ago, "Words, they die on our lips."
A tragedy this grave and unspeakable will spur recrimination. Should Washington state extend sentences for all violent offenders? The answer may be existential. Human nature is base and inscrutable. We're as likely to mitigate violence as remedy the seven deadly sins.
For Western lawmakers, gun control is the third rail. Still. Even liberal icons such as Idaho's late, great Frank Church knew better than to savage the National Rifle Association. A couple years ago, I referred to this as the Northwest thread in the political fabric — Big Government Libertarianism. West Coast politicians harmonize the value of New Deal-era government intervention with the Northwestern value of libertarian hands-off-ness.
These same lawmakers, however, would be horrified by the mad injustice that unfolded in a Lakewood coffee shop on Sunday.
The debate over gun violence brings out the worst in us. Years ago historian Richard Hofstadter referred to the "Paranoid Style in American Politics." As Hofstadter understated in 1964, "American politics has often been an arena for angry minds." (For years I presupposed the gun debate hinged on the West's urban-rural divide. It doesn't quite factor, however, in light of the scholarship of Stanford's Richard White and others who've documented the West's primarily urban character).
The latest nudge at gun control is Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels's proposed gun ban in city parks and community centers. The mayor has a point. Could there be a compelling reason to pack heat at a neighborhood park? Roaming packs of berserking 5-year-olds? Revenge upon that Czech immigrant who tries to castle twice at chess?
The Nickels initiative triggered a response from Snohomish County Councilmember John Koster who will, according to the Everett Herald, propose an ordinance to lift the firearm ban in Shohomish County parks. "The code is in conflict with state law," Koster is quoted as saying.
Nickels and Koster are principled public servants. They're also strategic thinkers, and the current battle serves as a proxy war for gun rights.
Legally speaking, Councilman Koster is likely right and Mayor Nickels is likely wrong. A gun ban contravenes state law. An extended legal fight won't benefit anyone except, perhaps, the attorneys involved.
All the while, both lawmakers owe the public a "yes, and" pledge: Yes, I'll pursue this gun-control question AND I propose the following: For example, develop programs in restorative justice to help young offenders make personal amends; enhance neighborhood watch programs; increase access to crime data; no parole for violent convicts; hire more street cops; and invest in gang-crime prevention programs with proven outcomes. The list, of course, goes on.
The Northwest's epidemic of gun violence demands more than grandstanding or symbolism. It can't go unchallenged. What, then, will actually work and who, over the long term, will benefit?
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