Gun debate sparks outpouring
Gun Violence Prevention Forum led by Congressman Mike Thomson in Santa Rosa
Congressman Mike Thompson led a Gun Violence Prevention Forum in Santa Rosa, Thursday.
Photo by John Capone
Congressman Mike Thompson kept an unruly overflow crowd mostly under control at the third of three area public gun violence prevention forums in Santa Rosa Thursday night. An estimated audience of 500 people packed the Sonoma County Supervisors Meeting Room, spilling out of an overflow room, into the hallway and lined up right to the entrance of the building.
They came from Mendocino, San Francisco, Lake County and Napa to have their say, and they lined up by the dozens — in an oftentimes colorful procession — to do just that. Though at times, outbursts and angry shouting interrupted an otherwise orderly flow. Some cajoled, argued and even threatened while attempting to make their points in the one minute and thirty seconds allotted.
Thompson, D-St. Helena, the chair of the congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, called the recent mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, that led to the formation of the task force “the worst gun tragedy I’ve ever seen,” but cautioned, “There is no one bill that can be passed, no one magic wand that could be waved that can guarantee that we never have problems like that.”
Thomson went on to say that, as horrific as the Newtown shooting was, “Gun violence is with us every day.” As if to punctuate this point, earlier that day a student at a Southern California high school opened fire with a shotgun, critically wounding a fellow student. In the four weeks since that tragedy, there have been over 800 people killed with firearms.
David Rabbitt, chair of the County Board of Supervisors, introduced Thompson as a Purple Heart recipient, gun owner and an avid hunter. Rabbit said, perhaps optimistically, “Tonight is democracy in action. That is truly a good thing.”
“I understand guns,” Thompson said, “And I understand that the only way we can do [something about gun violence] is if we all come together, we all are at the table and everything’s on the table. That’s the only way we’re going to forge a solution a solution that makes sure our communities are safer than they are today.”
Before opening the forum to public comments Thompson stated, “This is not a listening session or a hearing on the Second Amendment. … U.S. citizens have a right to own firearms. Period. Government entities have a right to pass regulations and laws pertaining to those firearms, but Americans have a right to own firearms.”
Before handing over the floor, Thompson said, “There’s an old saying in congress, ‘Everything’s been said, but everyone hasn’t yet said it.”
This admonition did not stop the Second Amendment from being raised again and again by many of the more than 75 citizens who spoke before the council. Many of the speakers were also very concerned about the way mental health is dealt with in in California and the country at large, expressing the opinion that inability to successfully address mental illness leads to much of the gun violence.
Michael Kennedy, Sonoma County’s Mental Health director, who sat on the panel for the forum said that concerning individuals that have mental health issues, “Our goal has been to intervene earlier, provide better access and link people to treatment.”
Kennedy pointed to the Mental Health Services Act in California as being instrumental in this effort and identified the Crisis Prevention Assessment and Education program and QPR system — for Question, Persuade and Refer — as being successful. The assessment team is available to go to schools throughout the county, and in the last year and half, “We’ve been able to hospitalize about 10 young people, get them stabilized, and then they are able to stay in school,” Kennedy said. The QPR training, said, Kennedy, is being instituted at schools widely, continuing the work of the county assessment teams. “It’s bee so successful at the schools that we are training incoming freshman and the teachers in QPR.”
Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas, District Attorney Jill Ravitch, Schools Superintendent Steve Herrington and Blake Graham, a special agent with the California Department of Justice, filled out the panel. Also present was 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin, who left two hours into the three-plus hour proceedings and could not be reached for comment.
Chillingly, Herrington said, that while every school in the County has current safety plans on file, “Most of our schools are not designed as well as the school Sandy Hook,” for lockdowns during an incident.
Sheriff Freitas admitted that gun laws can be confusing, and said, “If it’s hard for us, it must be hard for the public.” This theme was reiterated by many of the speakers on both sides, who asked for simplification of gun laws — one way or the other.
The public speakers’ time was tracked by a stoplight-like se of green, yellow and red light both at the front of the room and on the podium — yellow flashed when they had 30 seconds of their one minute and 30 seconds left and red blinked when their time was up. Most speakers respected the time limits and stepped down when Thompson thanked them for their comments, though those who did not were subject to the abuse of the crowd (which Thompson consistently discouraged).
One of the only public officials to speak during the public comment session, 3rd District Supervisor Shirlee Zane, was also the first to bear the brunt of the unruly crowd’s ire when she continued speaking through her red light. The murmuring among the standing-room crowd became louder and louder as Zane continued speaking, and when someone made a buzzer noise with his mouth and another person shouted “Don’t abuse power,” Zane addressed them, “I’m going to give my conclusion; I’ll be finished in one minute,” then the haranguing became too loud for her to continue speaking.
The parade of speakers continued at a rapid pace for the next two hours and 40 minutes. Multiple people stepped to the podium to share stories of relatives and friends killed by guns, some breaking down with emotion. Many stood up to declare their loathing for the current concealed-carry restrictions in California and were loudly cheered by a vocal gun-rights contingent in the building. Others offered their professional opinions as teachers and educators, law enforcement, or mental health professionals.
Dr. Dick Kirk, M.D. a pediatrician and psychiatrist from Sonoma, identified himself as a gun owner. “I deal with psychotic and suicidal people every day,” Kirk told the panel, then echoed one of the evening’s popular themes. “Prohibition against alcohol didn’t work,” he said. “Prohibiting other substances doesn’t work. The drug war causes more violence than it prevents. Substance abuse contributes to mental illness and to violence all over our country. By decriminalizing all those substances, providing much more funding for mental health to treat those small percentages of people who have problems with those substances, we can limit a lot of violence.”
Kirk got a laugh when he said, “Forty percent of Americans use pot only about 10 percent of pot users who get screwy on it. And very few of them are ever violent.” But he got serious when he said, “If we decriminalized all of that stuff we’d save half our criminal justice budget. We’d eliminate the Cali cartels, the Mexican cartels and the mafia.”
Ken Cavalli of Sonoma fixed his gaze on Thompson when he strode to the podium wearing a large bush hat. “The phrase, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help,’ scares the hell out of me,” he said.
Cavalli then brought up another recurring theme, questioning the government’s definition of an assault rifle, “If my 15-year-old son says, ‘Wow,’ it’s probably an assault rifle,” Cavalli quipped. Cavalli and others argued that assault rifles are too often defined by their appearance and not their functionality — and urged that rifles with things like pistol grips should not automatically put into a more restricted class.
Emotions ran high all evening, and at points tempers flared. When Patrick Mahaney turned to crowd and asked for a show of hands on the question, “Who would support arming and training school staff to the point where you had adequate and immediate protection,” and then derisively called those who didn’t raise their hands in favor or against, “fence sitters,” Thompson instructed him to address his comments to the panel. A face-off between the congressmen and the citizen ensued, with with Mahaney retorting loudly, “I’ll do what I want. You work for me,” to boisterous shouts and hoots from the audience.
Not all who voiced disagreements were so contentious, and many spoke of bridging differences.
Mike Palmer, who said, “The right to bear arms is rendered to us by our creator,” told Thompson, “I didn’tvote for you, but I’m very much impressed,” and nodded at the congressman, smiling. Then, presumably in the spirit of bi-partisanship, Palmer offered, “I’d like to have a beer with you.”