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‘We need to act as cities’ — what Seattle can do about gun violence

In the wake of Sunday’s mass shooting in Texas, local politicians are joining the national chorus of voices — yet again — calling for substantive measures to address America’s gun violence problem. Seattle’s likely mayor-elect and former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan called for municipal-level action on the issue in a statement made on Monday: “With no leadership from this Congress or our legislature, we need to act as cities,” she said.

But what does Seattle leadership on preventing gun violence look like? Local advocates for gun control and evidence-based approaches to reducing gun violence have a few ideas.

“There are a lot of things that can be done at the local level,” said Renee Hopkins, CEO of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility. “It’s really important that municipalities and counties are dedicated to investing resources into ensuring that the laws we know are effective are implemented.”

The Alliance for Gun Responsibility, a nonprofit gun policy reform advocacy group which spearheaded the successful statewide initiatives 594 and 1491—the former required background checks on all firearm sales at gun shows while the latter enabled families and law enforcement to petition courts to block someone’s access to firearms if they are deemed to be a threat to themselves or others—is promoting a Seattle-specific policy agenda.

Seattle isn’t immune to gun violence but fortunately the city has mostly escaped the ongoing wave of mass shootings. Still, according to a 2015 King County Public Health report on local gun violence, an annual average of 130 people die in King County from gun violence — surpassing annual average car crash deaths. Two thirds of those deaths are suicide by firearm, while the rest are homicides. Statewide, suicide by firearm accounted for 47% of all suicides in 2015. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 33,594 people died nationally from firearms.

During their campaigns, the two mayoral candidates had substantially different records on and specific policy recommendations for addressing gun violence. Following the Las Vegas shooting, Durkan touted an increase in gun prosecutions of illegal possession and sales in Washington State that occurred during her tenure as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, and called for banning bump stocks at the state level, publicizing firearm trace data to see how firearms enter communities, and interventions with youth at risk of either getting shot or perpetrating gun violence.

Additionally, Durkan supports increasing Seattle’s investment in researching the public health effects of gun violence, imposing state storage requirements (which would hold gun owners liable if their guns were stored unsecured and involved in gun violence), Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s assault weapons ban, and increasing funding for enforcing firearm possession restrictions on individuals with protection orders.

The Alliance for Gun Responsibility —whose priorities are practically mirrored in the gun violence initiatives that Durkan supports — endorsed Durkan prior to the November general election.

“I am proud to have the support of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility,” Durkan said in a statement to CHS. “We cannot arrest our way out of violent crime. Long-term solutions require bringing together a variety of resources and community efforts. As Mayor, I would continue that commitment to preventing gun violence.”

There are even fewer specifics when you look at the other camp in the race. Cary Moon’s campaign released a statement after the Las Vegas shooting decrying the violence and throwing Moon’s general support behind liberal gun policy reform priorities: “We must strengthen our local, state and national protections against gun violence, such as Attorney General Ferguson’s proposal to ban assault-style guns and high capacity magazines,” Moon said in the statement.

“Ensuring that angry violent men don’t have access to the most dangerous of weapons has to be a key priority for our cities and counties.”

One first step
One immediate recommendation promoted by the Alliance for Gun Responsibility is beefing up enforcement on recovering firearms from individuals barred from owning firearms due to court-mandated protection orders. “As we see again, with what just happened in Texas, domestic violence is often a key predictor of violence towards others,” said Hopkins. “Ensuring that angry violent men don’t have access to the most dangerous of weapons has to be a key priority for our cities and counties.”

The City of Seattle began implementing its own firearm surrender program in early 2017. According to Hopkins, additional resources for hiring staff dedicating to recovering such firearms have been allocated in the 2018 budgets of both the Seattle City Council and King County Council; she called upon local leaders to maintain and increase these investments.

Earlier this week, the King County Council announced it will allocate $600,000 to fund the “enforcement of firearm relinquishment and compliance in domestic violence and extreme protection order cases,” as allowed by I-1491. The council will also be putting $100,000 towards a public education campaign to promote firearm injury prevention.

Step two?
Another priority for the Alliance for Gun Responsibility is tracking stolen firearms. In 2015, the Seattle City Council passed legislation sponsored by the council member Tim Burgess which taxes gun and ammunition sales and requires gun owners to report firearm theft to police. Hopkins said that local leaders need to work to improve the firearm theft reporting system and make the data publicly available.

Similarly, the platform also calls on the City of Seattle to promote the findings of an internal study analyzing years of firearm trace data which is slated to be published in 2018. “That [the report] lends itself to both transparency and accountability to jurisdictions working to keeping guns off the street,” Hopkins said.

Additionally, advocates continue to call for more local-level investment in public-health minded research on gun violence. The Alliance for Gun Responsibility points to research currently being conducted at Harborview Medical Center on gun violence victims and intervention in cyclical patterns of trauma and violence as a good example. The project—which was partially funded by the City of Seattle—pairs a social worker with gunshot victims to connect with them with social services (e.g. housing, substance abuse treatment) in order to prevent them from either getting shot again or committing violence in the future. (Other research has shown that victims of gun violence have an increased risk of perpetrating violence or crime.)

Research = evidence
“Federal funding for research on gun violence has been pretty abysmal,” said Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, a researcher working on the project and an Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Washington. “I really hope as a researcher that we get more resources to research these things because it’s only through creating these pieces of evidence that we can get legislators to move the needle.”

“It’s only through creating these pieces of evidence that we can get legislators to move the needle”

Rowhani-Rahbar said that Seattle leaders should invest in research that deals with suicide and unintended firearm injury by exploring how to effectively encourage gun owners to store their guns locked and unloaded. He added that more research should be done on identifying “high risk individuals” who are likely to be victims of intentional gun violence or perpetrate it, and how to implement interventions so that they don’t “get hurt and do not hurt other people in the future.”

There are limitations to what kind of actions Washington localities can take to address gun violence. Both Hopkins and Washington state Senator Jamie Pedersen (D–43) criticized a state law which restricts local governments from enacting gun regulation that isn’t specifically authorized by Washington statutory law.

“Unfortunately the state has really occupied the field in this area,” Pedersen said. “Literally the only thing that the statute allows local governments to do is to decide that they don’t want to allow guns into convention centers.”

In 2010, a ban on firearms in city parks—which was introduced by former Mayor Greg Nickels—was struck down in the courts due to the state-level restrictions on local gun regulation. The more recent tax on gun and ammunition sales was upheld by the Washington state Supreme Court because they deemed taxation to be different than regulation and, consequently, not covered by state law as plaintiffs representing gun industry interests argued.

Pedersen blames Washington state Senate Republicans for sluggish movement on addressing gun violence at the state level.

“The primary impediment has been the Senate Republicans for the past five years,” he said. “The only things that have made it out of committee [in the senate] have been bills that the National Rife Association were either neutral on or supportive of.”

For gun violence advocates and researchers, the status-quo is unacceptable.

“The bottom line is that we can’t stay indifferent in light of all these tragic events that happen,” Rowhani-Rahbar said. “At the state level and local level we can do much more and much, much better.”

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