Gun crack down

Focus should be on imposing real penalties on juvenile offenders, not Seattle's symbolic parks ban.
Focus should be on imposing real penalties on juvenile offenders, not Seattle's symbolic parks ban.

Mayor Greg Nickels is moving ahead with his proposed ban of guns from parks facilities, including playgrounds, pools, community- and nature centers. The ban was inspired in part by an incident last year at Folklife.

The re-emergence of gang problems has also contributed to public concern, as have recent shootings involving young teens, including the gunning down of 18-year-old Aaron Sullivan in Leschi and a Ballard convenience store clerk Manish Melwani last summer, both crimes allegedly committed by teenage suspects now charged with murder.

State Attorney General Rob McKenna says Nickels' ban is not legal, and that any such ban would have to be instituted by state law. As I outlined last year, I have a problem with the Nickels ban for other reasons. Whether Nickels can impose a gun ban on city property by fiat is doubtful, and in any case it has no teeth: Violators cannot be arrested, merely scolded or escorted from parks with a warning.

Toothlessness of the law is a problem. One thing area gun critics and Second Amendment advocates can agree on is the need for stiffer enforcement and penalties for juveniles with guns. When I talked with McKenna earlier this year, he cited the need for taking juvenile gun possession seriously and called for enforcing existing laws. That was echoed in stark detail recently by King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg who, in a Seattle Times Op/Ed, laid out the problem:

Young men, armed with guns, roaming the streets of Seattle ought to raise serious concern in the eyes of the law. Instead, unlawful gun possession in Juvenile Court is one of the least-serious crimes on the books.

The sentencing law for juveniles convicted of illegal gun possession is as follows:

First conviction, zero to 30 days detention, zero to 12 months probation;

Second conviction, same as the first, zero to 30 days detention, zero to 12 months probation;

Third conviction, the same;

Fourth conviction — If the first three trips through the court system didn't teach the offender a lesson, well, they still only face 0 to 30 days in detention, zero to 12 months probation.

What you have read is not a typo. Only upon the fifth felony conviction will the sentence require that the juvenile spend some time (15 to 36 weeks) out of the community and in a state Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA) facility, like Echo Glen near North Bend.

That's right, you get five strikes before getting more than a slap on the wrist.

A very mixed message is being sent to young men: what you're doing is illegal and dangerous, but we can't bother to punish you, so carry on. Or as Satterberg writes:

We have failed our youth with the current sentencing model, which does so very little to deter or teach a kid about the danger of the decision to carry a gun. We cannot wait until a kid has five felony convictions for carrying a handgun before we act to remove them from the community. That is a failed law that endangers both the kid and the community.

Instead of applauding symbolism of dubious legality and questionable benefit, we ought to be focusing on enforcing existing laws to deal with teen (or younger) offenders, to forestall bad behavior and deal with known problems earlier rather than later.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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