Thoughts on developing safe communities

By Richard Emery, Mukilteo City Council | May 22, 2013
Richard Emery

My thanks to the Beacon editor for requesting this column.

A few weeks ago, Mukilteo resident Skip Ferderber wrote an opinion piece in these pages expressing concern about tragedies like Sandy Hook and how to prevent them here, or anywhere else.

One of his points was gun control, with about 300 million guns in private hands in America, is unlikely to prevent another tragedy in the current political climate. While I believe many of the measures under discussion will have some positive effect on preventing mass killings, and are necessary, they will not be sufficient.

Recent technological developments making it possible to print plastic guns and high capacity magazines on a 3-D printer will clearly further erode their effectiveness.

The recent debate at City Hall organized by Rep. Marko Liias was an excellent effort to have an open discussion about what could be done, the consequences of various options, and whether there may be any common ground and agreement on how to move forward.

The questions and the responses were admirably civil, and it seemed to me there were two ideas that both sides could embrace.

Pursuing charges against felons who lie on a background check was one. Another was to improve our mental health system: providing better services to those in need, and to more clearly identify individuals who are neither mentally or emotionally competent to own guns responsibly.

There still are more areas of disagreement and contention than agreement, however.

Perhaps we have not yet discovered the ideas, language and laws that would be effective and acceptable. Are we really not smart enough to account for multiple consequences and contingencies and protect Second Amendment rights?

Should we stop trying because we have not yet found an effective, common response? And, if we accept that we cannot be successful, does that mean we are willing to accept the deaths and the damage done to our communities by gun violence?

Decades ago we, as a society, decided that the level of deaths and injuries on our streets and highways was unacceptable.

Over time there were changes in how vehicles were built, safety features, laws, and social norms, all of which resulted in a dramatic reduction in driving related fatalities and injuries even though there are far more vehicles, drivers, and miles driven now than then.

I believe we can do the same with what might better be phrased as responsible gun ownership.

Skip Ferderder's question, "What else can we do to prevent another Sandy Hook or Café Racer?" resonated with me because after too many of these tragedies, people who knew the person responsible for the killings said things like, "Oh, I'm not surprised this happened."

My first reaction to those comments was, why did no one do anything before things spiraled out of control? My second reaction was to wonder, to whom would they have asked those questions and who would, or could, have provided any support or intervention?

My third reaction was to wonder what is it about our culture and mores that prevents us from asking if people about whom we are concerned are getting the support and help they need? And what will it take to make it available?

The suggestion in Skip's column was to bring representatives from multiple segments of our community together to discuss what could be done to be more proactive in providing information, resources and care to members of our community who may need it.

These representatives might come from public safety, schools, health departments, public and non-profit mental health providers, elected representatives, and concerned citizens, faith communities, among others.

I recently brought this issue to the Mukilteo City Council Public Safety Committee and found strong support for developing such a dialogue, as well as a spirited discussion about our mental health system, medical privacy issues, commitment laws and restrictions, and other issues related to this.

While implementing a response that could effectively support community members in need of assistance is clearly beyond the capacity of the city, we have a role to play in this.

Our public safety personnel have been, and will remain, on the front lines in dealing with members of our community in need of various services.

And I believe we could help initiate the wider discussion since this affects us all, both in Mukilteo and the larger community around us.

This is not the time or place to make suggestions about solutions. That is, after all, the point of having a broad discussion. There are several things I believe any such discussion should not be, however.

We have to get beyond what we cannot do, for example. And, as important as I believe changes in the involuntary commitment law in Washington may be (and there is a bill now in the Legislature that addresses that), none of the people responsible for the deaths at Seattle's Café Racer, Colorado's Aurora Theatre, or Newtown's Sandy Hook were committable.

The concern I share with Skip is how to get help and support to people in our communities about whom we are concerned before they develop behavior that may be committable.

Could there be a resource where we could call with questions about behaviors that concern us? Where we could ask if that person (and their family) are getting what they need, and then have those services provided?

Finding ways to accomplish these things could be a valuable component in preventing more gun violence tragedies. And will contribute to making our communities safe and healthy for everyone.

Comments and suggestions are gladly accepted at remery@ci.mukilteo.wa.us.

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