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Washington's deadly approach to gun control

Seattle is still reeling from a heartbreaking surge in bystander shooting deaths. What will it take to finally get some sane gun legislation?

A heavily armed democracy must also have a commitment to sanity and humanity. It does little good to say the mentally ill can’t own firearms if you can’t identify who they are, if you can’t disarm them and if you don’t have the resources to treat them.

Summer, in spirit if not via the weather, kicks off each year over Memorial Day weekend with the Northwest Folklife Festival at Seattle Center. This year, it sadly provided echoes of the sound too often heard on Seattle streets these days: gunfire. A bystander was caught in the crossfire of a shooting near the Space Needle, shot in the leg. Urban reality intruded on a music festival that is a tribute to the“live and let live” hippie ethic.

It was only one of a series of shootings that has shaken the city this year. The year got off to a bad start with a spate of gun violence; so bad that by February, Mayor Mike McGinn had declared a "public safety emergency," largely due to South End street violence. Then came the massacre of five people at Café Racer in the U District; the murder of a woman next to that church of civility, Town Hall, during a madman’s carjacking; and the killing of a Madrona dad, struck down by a stray bullet.

Seattle is not often moved by gang violence, and the Lake Washington Ship Canal too often symbolically defines our zone of concern as it delineates a long-standing racial and economic divide. But the early-summer shootings moved the trauma into the public square and involved victims that a majority of people could relate to: a Zillow employee running errands, artists and musicians hanging out in a coffeehouse, a Bellevue mom with kids in a local private school.

No one has an overarching explanation for the spike in violence — too many guns, socio-economic conditions, a statistical quirk, all of the above. A police department under scrutiny for its use of force is being squeezed both for being too tough and for not doing
enough. No one is promising a quick fix.

And there isn’t one. But it seems like a good time to take stock. On the good-news side, the Seattle/Tacoma/Bellevue metro area is the 15th most populous in the U.S., according to the 2010 U.S. Census. In terms of serious crime — murder, rape, aggravated assault, burglary, auto theft  —  it ranks 134th. If you swap out Tacoma for Everett, it drops to 161st. Either way, we’re doing well for a city of our size. We’re not Detroit (the worst), or Oakland (12th), or Las Vegas (8th) or even Anchorage, Alaska (18th).

On the downside, we’re being pressured by too many guns and too little money. Washington is a pro-gun state, and gun control laws have to go through Olympia, where they tend to founder, even on the heels of tragedy. The courts threw out Seattle’s 2008 gun ban in city parks, which also followed a Folklife shooting in which three people were injured. An assault weapons ban proposed after the murder of teenager Aaron Sullivan in Leschi —  killed by another teen wielding an AK-47 — failed to become law in 2010. We can do a better job of enforcing existing guns laws, but guns will not be legislated away.

Yet as we defend gun rights, we’ve also been slashing budgets. In 2010, Governor Christine Gregoire expressed her agony over the state of affairs. “I hate it. ... and in some places I don’t even think it’s moral,” she said. She was referring to her own proposed budget. Restrictions and tax limits have caused excruciating cuts, including a program at Western State Hospital that allowed violent psychiatric patients to be housed there. As Carol Smith of InvestigateWest wrote in 2011, “The cutbacks are a further sign of how state budget cuts are ripping through the mental health safety net.”

Unfortunately, many pro-gun legislators in Oly are also pushing more and more to cut government funding. The result is an increasingly armed populace and fewer resources to identify and treat people who are mentally ill and potentially violent. Ian Stawicki, who shot down his fellow Café Racer regulars and the mom at Town Hall, was known to be mentally unbalanced by his family and friends, and he had a domestic violence record. Yet he was well armed and untreated.

A democracy needs an educated citizenry. An uninformed society, James Madison said, leads to “farce or a tragedy.” But a heavily armed democracy must also have a commitment to sanity and humanity. It does little good to say the mentally ill can’t own firearms if you can’t identify who they are, if you can’t disarm them and if you don’t have the resources to treat them.

Failing to follow through with sane policy also contributes to tragedy, as we’re learning the hard way.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Sep 5, 4:35 a.m. Inappropriate

I must point out that "assault weapons" are already "banned" to anyone but law enforcement and active duty military. Real assault weapons or fully automatic weapons are not available to the general public. What you are talking about is a ban on guns that look like assault weapons.

The shooting at folklife was a 22 caliber rifle as far as you can get from Assault weapon. Clearly only a total ban on guns would have stopped that shooting and since the shooting happened outside of folklife in a side street not even the gun ban for parks would help.

While i agree something needs to be done about the mentally unstable and i feel for the victims. I also suggest you be clear in your article on what you are asking for not an assault weapons ban those are already banned you are asking or advocating for a total gun ban.

Posted Thu, Sep 6, 8:08 a.m. Inappropriate

I don't recall reading anything in Berger's article about banning guns.
We can sure as heck regulate them. This includes type, use, who can possess, where they can possess, etc., etc. We regulate free speech, another right guaranteed under the constitution, and there is absolutely no reason why we can't or shouldn't regulate guns.

Bella

Posted Thu, Sep 6, 3:39 p.m. Inappropriate

In spite of your thoughtful piece about protecting gun rights through rational regulation, Knute, the pro gun fanatics immediately jump to the attack accusing you of advocating a gun ban. And so we see how the epidemic of gun violence is abetted by such hysterical posturing.

Assault weapons are not necessarily defined by their ability to be fully automatic. That a gun industries apologists insist on picking these nits demonstrate a well orchestrated attempt to frustrate attempts to effectively deal with gun violence. It's time for the rest of us to see through this and to demand a plan from our political leaders.

And as evidence of the well orchestrated effort to frustrate the desire to regulate our "militia" stay tuned to the pro gun propaganda that is likely to follow this post.

Posted Sat, Sep 8, 1:10 p.m. Inappropriate

The countries that follow us, globally, with the largest per capita LEGAL gun ownership (this kind of leaves out war zones and anarchy areas like Yemen and Iraq, which are in the top 3 of extralegal gun ownership charts), such as Finland, Cyprus, and even Switzerland, all regulate the gun owner, as opposed to "banning" guns.
This is a proven and working way of allowing gun ownership, but reducing guns in the hands of criminals, the mentally unstable, and children.

Finland, for example, has a robust gun culture, with a higher percentage of the population hunting than here in the USA. Finns love guns, and make some of the best guns in the world. But they regulate who can have a gun, and how. And it works- the honest citizens who want to hunt or own guns can, and do. Yet the Finns have a firearms homicide rate around 1/5th of ours.

There are a whole range of approaches to guns worldwide, its not a binary situation where the only two answers are free for all or complete ban.

Ries

Posted Sun, Sep 9, 8:08 p.m. Inappropriate

I can't think of a rational reason why guns should not be banned.

sarah90

Posted Mon, Sep 10, 5:14 a.m. Inappropriate

I can. You haven't enough votes.

ivan

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