In an address to the nation, President Barack Obama promised action to prevent future mass shootings in response to Friday’s killings at a Connecticut elementary school.
In crafting potential policy changes in the Washington Legislature, state Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, will have a unique voice.
He was in the cafeteria of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., 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 among 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.
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.
State Rep. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, agreed that the Legislature should take a serious look at the 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,” said Billig, who will be a state senator next year.
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 others who argue the answer is fewer 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 could respond quickly. He suspects that death totals at some mass shootings could have been reduced if the laws were less restrictive.
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 easing restrictions on 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, like many departments, changed its policy on 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, said Spokane police Chief Frank Straub.
“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 in 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,” he said.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he doesn’t have a strong opinion about easing restrictions on carrying guns at schools for gun permit holders, but said a well-trained gun owner may be able to 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.”