Seattle's misguided gun ban

Mayor Greg Nickels plans to defy state law with a gun ban that is worse than an empty gesture: It puts law-abiding citizens at greater risk.
Mayor Greg Nickels plans to defy state law with a gun ban that is worse than an empty gesture: It puts law-abiding citizens at greater risk.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels is planning to issue an order to ban legal handguns from city parks and buildings next month, despite the fact that such a move is "unequivocally" against state law. That's only one of the reasons I voted to re-elect Republican state Attorney General Rob McKenna earlier this month. McKenna has already weighed in against Nickels' proposal, and I hope he'll be a zealous guardian in court of citizen gun rights in Washington.

Nickels' move will no doubt be popular with many Seattleites — it's the kind of symbolism that underscores our city's more-liberal-than-thou reputation. I wish I could say it would be an empty gesture in a country where the right to bear arms has both popular, constitutional, and Supreme Court support, but I think such a ban is ill-advised.

There are several problems with it, aside from its legality. One is that the safety of Seattle's citizens is far from assured — and no amount of law enforcement (including a police state) can ensure the safety of particular individuals. The other night, I attended a party for Seattle magazine's annual list of the most powerful people in the city — as editor-at-large there, I serve on the committee that reviews the picks. It was held in the Pampas Room at Belltown's El Goucho. The buzz of the party wasn't so much about insider power but the lack of power Belltown itself is feeling when it comes to safety. This week, concerned Belltowners met with the city over safety issues, as described by KING-TV:

Belltown used to be known as a very hip and happening place to live, but now residents say they are afraid to leave their home 'ꀓ even in broad daylight. Store owners say they are losing business because of drug dealing outside.

One Seattle magazine staffer described how she was recently mugged in Belltown — the kind of crime where the mugger immediate ran off to use her credit card to buy what she thinks was $13 bucks worth of booze at Safeway. Other partygoers talked about how they're afraid to walk through Belltown anymore. "When you have high densities of living, alcohol establishments, and social services, we're going to have some challenges," Capt. Steven Brown of the Seattle Police Department's West Precinct told KING 5.

That's not just a Belltown concern but a citywide concern for a town that is densifying all over, where Manhattan-style urbanization (higher densities, high-rise development) isn't just a growth phenomenon but official city policy, and in a town with budget troubles, too few cops, holes in the social service safety net and a troubled economy. It's sad to say Belltown — once the prime example of how this "world-class city" stuff was supposed to work — is taking on the distinctly un-Seattle feel of a neighborhood of fortified towers and underground parking designed to protect affluent residents from the sans-culotte.

While the mayor's ban won't make Belltown safer, it could make city parks less safe for the urbanites who use them. I have previously written that I oppose handguns in national parks because I believe these are public sanctuaries to preserve nature. They are off the beaten path, and people have to travel long distances and pay relatively expensive entry, lodging, and camping fees to use them under the supervision and protection of park rangers. The biggest threat might be bears, but in wild country, it's the bears that have the right to bear arms.

But I see city parks in an entirely different light. They are part of the urban fabric, part of everyday space, used by people of all types, all classes, all criminal backgrounds. They are the heart of our commons. Many have remote parts and places like playgrounds that are also potential stalking grounds. They are mostly open, uncontrolled, and unguarded. They are vital, lively and important public spaces that should be open to all. I do not see how they can be segregated in terms of gun laws. To ask citizens with the legal right to carry guns elsewhere to disarm themselves in circumstances where vigilance is often required and protection hard to come by is unfair, even dangerous.

I've been stalked. I know others who have been the victims of stalkers and involved in domestic violence situations that pose an ongoing threat. I have been through handgun training for gays and lesbians and have seen how the de-mystification of firearms has helped empower people whose very lifestyle puts them at risk. Simply knowing that they have the ability to protect themselves, holding the idea that gay bashers might have to think twice before assuming potential targets were defenseless, seemed to lighten a psychological load if nothing else.

I think the legal right to carry a weapon, whether you choose to or not, is part of putting a caution in the head of some predators that you — and the general citizenry — may not be as vulnerable as they would like. It's important to know that guns aren't just for the bad guys, and that protecting yourself with a firearm doesn't automatically make you one.

It's absolutely an individual choice whether to arm oneself. And the laws should be strict about criminal background checks and keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. But for many people, legal gun rights give them a chance to use the city more openly, safely, and with a sense of security that no law enforcement agency or piece of paper could ever provide.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.