Guns, Guns and More Guns

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[Originally published May 2012. Sadly, still as relevant today].

If there’s one thing that defines the Puget Sound region this spring, it’s that we are a well-armed and embattled people. As a result, too many of our citizens – too many of our young people –have been killed or wounded by guns.

On Monday, after a spate of gun incidents over the weekend, the score was one bystander killed, another wounded, four gang-led drive-by shootings and an armed robbery. The violent weekend fell only weeks after a 21-year old culinary student, an innocent bystander, was fatally shot in Pioneer Square.

Then on Wednesday, to Seattle’s horror, a mentally unstable individual took five lives, seemingly at random, left one victim fighting for his life and shot himself fatally. The bloody tragedies left citizens saddened, shocked and grieving.

“Why is this happening?” That was one of the first questions asked at Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn’s hastily called press conference on Wednesday afternoon. Similar questions followed: Is the Seattle Police Department holding back in the wake of the Department of Justice’s report on excessive use of force? Is there a link to the hostile crowds that recently impeded police access to victims?

To those of us who watched the impromptu press conference, it became clear the questions were skirting the mark. Among the issues that needed to be stressed were: How are people getting these guns? And, more importantly, are we, at long last, ready to revisit local regulation of firearms?

On the previous morning, Deputy chief Nick Metz clearly defined the problem. He said it’s not gangs, but guns. We have far too many guns, easily obtained. Furthermore, Washington’s gun laws are among the most lenient in the nation –even Texas forbids such things as open carry of loaded firearms without a permit.

The sad truth is that this city’s hands are tied. Seattle cannot implement laws to stem guns because of the state’s preemption law. That law (RCW 9.41.290) prohibits cities from enacting laws that are more restrictive than state regulations.

Preemption means Seattle cannot ban guns in city parks and buildings. Nor can we pass stiff penalties that would discourage youth under 21 from possessing firearms. Nor can we ban semi-automatic assault weapons, such as one that took the life of a Seattle police officer on Halloween night in 2009.

This one-size-fits-all approach is not working.  The regulation of firearms should be an issue of local control. People in Seattle know best what gun laws are appropriate for our dense urban city. Similarly, rural cities are best positioned to determine what works for them.

More police patrols may help, but will not solve the problem. The only way to stem gun violence is to reduce the flow of guns into Seattle and that requires courageous action in Olympia, action that’s sadly been constrained by lack of leadership.

It’s time for our state lawmakers to stand with cities and towns to improve the safety of our citizens. We can all make a difference by insisting that state legislative candidates go on the record on this issue. Seattle’s next legislative agenda needs to emphasize local control and, along with other councilmembers, I will personally lobby state lawmakers to allow cities to pass reasonable regulations. Only then will we able to stop the bloodshed.