In an address to the nation, President Barack Obama promised action to prevent future mass shootings in response to Friday’s mass murder at a Connecticut elementary school.
In crafting possible related policy changes in the Washington State Legislature, state Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, will have a unique voice.
He was in the cafeteria of Columbine High School in Littleton, Co. as a school volunteer in April 1999 when two students murdered 12 students and a teacher.
Parker, whose wife was a volunteer cross country coach at the high school, said Friday that every mass shooting in the news takes him back to his experience at Columbine.
“It’s just so tragic in so many levels,” he said. “My hope is that the media focus on the families and not the gunman.”
That’s because, he said, research has shown that there are few similarities between instigators of mass killings at school, except mental illness and craving for attention.
He said if there’s one thing the Legislature should consider in response to the shooting it’s mental health funding, which he said has been cut too much in recent years.
“We’re going to make a difference through education and through a strong mental health system,” he said.
In a speech during which he wiped tears from his eyes, Obama promised action, though he did not say what that might include.
“As a country, we have been through this too many times,” Obama said. “Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago – these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”
Parker opposes further gun control and questions what he called “well-intentioned” legislative efforts to address bullying.
“I wish laws would somehow solve this problem, but they don’t,” he said.
Earlier this year, Parker addressed an assembly about bullying at Salk Middle School in North Spokane. He said school efforts to prevent bullying and educating students about warning signs of potential violence make a difference in the prevention of shootings where the potential perpetrators are students.
“These make a difference because we’re talking about the culture of a school or of the community,” he said.
State Rep. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, agreed that the Legislature should take a serious look at its mental health system in response to the shootings.
“Mental health funding is important for public safety as well as the health and dignity of the individual,” Billig said.
But Billig said gun control should be part of the debate, adding that smaller tragedies related to gun violence occur on a daily basis.
“We need to address it through an honest conversation about gun control and increased funding for mental health,” he said.
But there are other voices on gun control who say the answer is less restrictions on guns. Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan said rules preventing concealed weapons at schools should be reversed so teachers, principals or other adults who are trained to use guns and have weapon permits could respond quickly. He suspects that death totals at some mass shootings could have been less if the laws were less restrictive.
Fagan said if gun control prevents “law abiding respectable people” from having guns, “then the only people who are going to have access to them are the military, the police and the bad guys,” he said.
Parker said he doesn’t have an opinion about relaxing concealed weapons permits at schools or if having armed teachers at Columbine would have saved lives.
Billig, however, opposes lessening concealed weapons rules.
“I don’t think the answer to a safer community is more guns in schools,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, said Congress should learn more about the incident before making policy changes. She opposed a ban on assault weapons in her recent election campaign.
“We need to look at what drives a crazy person to do these kind of actions and make sure that we’re enforcing the laws that are currently on the books,” McMorris Rodgers told The Washington Post. “And yes, definitely, we need to do everything possible to make sure that something like this never happens again.”
Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub worked with the Spokane Public Schools Friday to increase police presence at elementary schools, especially when school was letting out, in part as a source of comfort to parents and a sign that police are working closely with schools.
Spokane, like many police departments changed their policy responding to mass shootings after Columbine. Instead of waiting for a SWAT team, officers are trained to go inside once four to six officers are on scene, Straub said.
“The whole idea is to go in as quickly as possible and neutralize the shooter or shooters,” Straub said.
Straub urged caution in debate about allowing concealed weapons at schools. He noted that police have extensive training not only on firing guns, but understanding when to use them.
If adults at schools are allowed to carry guns, “shouldn’t they be trained at that level? I kind of think they should be.”
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he doesn’t have a strong opinion about lessening restrictions on carrying guns at schools for gun permit holders, but said a well-trained gun owner may be able stop further bloodshed in some circumstances.
He said he’s more concerned about improving funding for mental health programs.
The state has shirked its mental health responsibilities in recent years, as people with mental illness go in and out of jail without proper follow-up care “sometimes with dire results,” Knezovich said.
“The Spokane County Jail should not be the second or third biggest mental health facility in the state.”