When Ian Stawicki opened fire in Café Racer in the Roosevelt neighborhood on May 30 he did so with a legally obtained gun, despite a history of mental illness. The five people he killed that day represent the reason previous Mayor Greg Nickels, Mayor Mike McGinn and other legislators want to implement certain gun bans and regulations.
Conversely, having a gun and permit to carry it could make the difference between surviving an assault or not. Dave Workman, an East King County resident, said when his mother-in-law called him for help with an intruder, the gun he brought to the scene helped him stop the man. He did not fire the weapon, but he was able to hold the intruder until the sheriff arrived.
“The guy would have gotten away, and since criminals don’t obey the laws, I could be dead,” Workman said. “The gun stopped a crime.”
As a proponent of the Second Amendment right to bear arms, Workman said sometimes it is the mere presence of the gun that is enough to stop someone. Incidents like the recent shootings in Seattle bring up new discussions about public safety, which is good if the discussion covers all sides of the issue, he said.
Stronger gun laws?
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said more fights in the United States end in gun incidents than any other country in the world. The country is also rated No. 1 worldwide in the number of privately owned firearms.
A 2010 Brady Campaign study showed there were 39 gun-related deaths in the United Kingdom, 200 in Canada and 9,484 in the United States; the United States is the only country among the three that allows private ownership of a gun.
Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, a former attorney, said the first step to changing the gun violence in Seattle is acknowledgement that people today behave differently than in the past, and state and local laws should reflect those changes.
The proponents of the Second Amendment and those seeking new regulations need to find a middle ground, he said.
“We need to have more control on a local basis,” Harrell said. “We need new energy behind this.”
Currently, Washington state law does not allow cities to pass laws that are more restrictive than state laws. One of Harrell’s goals is to gain flexibility with this law so that cities like Seattle can impose more effective, local regulations, he said. For example, he would like to regulate permitted gun owners’ ability to carry their weapons in Seattle city parks, but he can’t because of state laws.
Former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels tried to implement a ban on firearms in parks and recreational facilities in 2009, but the ban was deemed unlawful in court due to state laws. Current Mayor Mike McGinn has also tried to implement these bans in 2010.
“What the city can do is organize nonprofits who are interested in this area to bring awareness, which we have not done yet,” Harrell said. “Our relative silence on the matter has been deafening.”
Gun shows represent another issue where policy changes are needed at the state level without local exemption, Harrell said. Shows often do not require identification, background checks or tax charges with the private sales, so a person could buy several guns and sell them to people out of their trunk illegally, he explained.
(In comparison to other states, Washington gun laws have are less restrictive. California has no state preemption law prohibiting city and local authorities from implementing regulations more restrictive than state laws. California’s laws also require background checks on all firearm and handgun sales, including those at gun shows.)
Harrell also spoke about the state laws for juveniles in possession of guns. Right now, the law does not significantly charge juveniles until their fifth offense, and King County Prosecuting Attorney Daniel Satterberg has tried in the past to change this policy. Harrell said he wants to work with Satterberg to make this law more restrictive.
The final part to Harrell’s plan involves community outreach, he explained. Using faith-based groups, gang outreach and mentoring programs, he wants to provide resources to help at-risks youths avoid having guns and violence in their lives.
The new generations are desensitized to violence, and their communities need to step up, Harrell said.
Overall, Harrell believes the concealed-weapons permit laws should be changed, but those laws are not the main priority right now, he said. Juveniles, people who are mentally ill and people who cannot pass background checks but carry guns are the main focus.
For the mentally ill, they should bear the burden of proof with history, testimonial and verification to prove whether they are fit to hold a permit, he said.
“I do not feel guns should be prohibited period, and I fully respect one’s right to bear arms,” Harrell said. “However, our gun-safety laws are completely inadequate.”
Brian Malte, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence’s director of mobilization and legislation, said, Washington state law allows a person to buy a gun without already having a permit, but one is needed to carry a gun. Washington’s gun laws are weak in comparison to other states and received 15 out of 100 points in the Brady Campaign’s 2011 state ratings. The ratings were based on categories like the state’s efforts to curb firearm trafficking and strengthen background checks, Malte said.
The Brady Campaign lobbies for stronger gun laws at the federal, state and local levels in the United States. In 1993, President Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, which requires a background check for every person buying a legal gun.
Currently, the Brady Campaign collaborates locally with the Washington CeaseFire organization to change laws and put the permit decisions back in individual state legislation’s hands. They are also moving to ban the ability to openly carry guns in public through the state’s legislation, he said.
“With regards to gun shows, Brady criminal-background checks are not required at gun shows in Washington state,” Malte said. “You can buy any type or any number from an unlicensed seller. A convicted felon could go into a gun show and purchase five AK-47s.”
Bureaucracy vs. the courts
Most gun owners and non-gun owners would agree with having background checks for those applying for a gun permit, Malte said. However, when organizations like the National Rifle Association (NRA) use propaganda techniques to divide the issue between gun opponents and proponents, change becomes difficult, he said.
Malte said he has faced opponents of gun regulation like the NRA when lobbying for the Brady Campaign in Washington, D.C. As a rigid and extremist group, he said, the NRA polarizes the gun issue by opposing any regulations that would infringe upon gun rights, while the Brady Campaign tries to compromise.
“We are not against guns, and we are not a gun-banning organization,” Malte said. “What we say is we support stronger regulation of guns to make sure they don’t fall into the hands of dangerous people.”
Alan Gottlieb, the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation’s founder and executive vice president, said the foundation members believe in protecting citizens’ Second Amendment rights and their right to take responsibility in their own protection. Anytime and anywhere a person could be a potential target, he said. If they want, people should have the right to protect their own bodies, which could involve legally owning a gun.
“If someone in Café Racer had a firearm, they could have saved some additional lives,” Gottlieb said.
The police department is competent at protecting citizens of the city, but officers can’t be on every street corner, Gottlieb said. The foundation does support laws barring those adjudicated mentally ill by a court from obtaining firearms. If a person is considered nonviolent or not a threat to others, then they should have the right to bear arms, he said.
“A gun is a tool, and it doesn’t have a finger to pull its own trigger with or a brain to hate with,” Gottlieb said. “We don’t support uses for evil, but we support uses for good.”
He said the foundation’s disagreement with gun laws happens when bureaucracy makes decisions instead of the court. Regulations and policies infringing on Second Amendment rights present the issue.
A ‘public-health issue’
The police department works closely on beat routes to stay connected with the community, but they cannot solve crime alone, said Seattle Police Department spokesperson Mark Jamieson.
Daniel Byrne, the board president of Washington Cease Fire, said his organization works with advocates to make Washington state and Seattle a safer place. It educates people about guns, advocate for legislative reform and run advertising campaigns on transit systems to display facts about gun ownership and violence.
“Guns are a public-health issue,” Byrne said. “Having a gun in your home does not make you safe. People say that guns don’t affect the average person — [that] it’s gangs — but this is not true.”
Long-term education and awareness can reverse the trend of gun violence, Byrne said. Companies like Costco and California Pizza Kitchens restaurants now have gun-free zones, and that trend should be pushed in restaurants and other private establishments, he said.
“People say nothing can be done, but when you do more research you see something can be done,” Byrne said. “It takes people standing tall.”
In California, progressive laws prohibit people from buying rifles and large magazine clips of ammunition, Byrne said.
In Vancouver, B.C., there are 25 percent fewer deaths by guns than in Washington state. This state needs to simply do a better job at controlling guns, he said.