We applaud voters for passing laws that have reduced gun violence in Washington State, but in order to prevent further tragedies, more must be done. Our hearts go out to the family of Sam Strahan, who was murdered in the 15-year-old shooter’s rampage at Freeman High.
In recent years, Washington voters have passed several gun control laws including two that that increase background checks and allow for friends and family members to report an individual’s potentially dangerous behavior to law enforcement which could ban that individual from possessing firearms. However, these laws do not call for any preventive mental health measures, including a wider accessibility of mental health evaluations at schools. Moreover, if a student such as the Freeman High shooter shows a particular affinity for a parent’s guns and writes a known “manifesto list of dad’s ammo,” as the Spokesman Review described this week, then that person should be subject to regular mental health evaluations and counseling.
Opponents of this idea will likely say that not all young gun enthusiasts should have to go through mental health evaluations and counseling since they are not all going to be the next school shooter. However, the law that we are proposing would only apply to students at public elementary through high schools who demonstrate an affinity for guns that makes other students or staff uneasy.
Similar laws as the one we are proposing have already been put into effect, but they do not consist of required mental health evaluations for students. Last year, Washington voters passed Initiative 1491, also known as Extreme Risk Protection Orders. This initiative allows law enforcement and families of an individual threatening the lives of themselves or others to petition for said individual to be forced to surrender their firearms for up to a year.
The goal of I-1491 is to keep firearms out of the possession of convicted felons and those who have shown undeniable evidence that they are planning to harm themselves or others. Since families often notice signs that someone is exhibiting behavior that could lead to the individual carrying out a tragedy like that at Freeman High School on Wednesday, they are now empowered to take action and report the behavior to law enforcement. However, this may not be enough to completely fix the problem because mental health issues are ultimately the cause of school shootings, therefore a mental health evaluation component must be included in future gun control legislation. I-1491 combined with our proposed law would make those reported to have mental health issues be stripped of their firearms and be subject to mandatory mental health evaluations and counseling, which would greatly decrease the chance of another tragedy like the one at Freeman High last week.
Washington gun control laws have had a positive impact in decreasing the number of deaths by gun violence, but at a smaller scale than a school shooting. In 2014, a law mandating a background check prior to the purchase of all firearms in Washington State was passed and has already shown positive results. Since this law’s passage, there has been a 46 percent decrease in women shot by their intimate partners, a 48 percent decrease in law enforcement officers shot to death via handgun and a 48 percent drop in gun trafficking.* The primary goal of the background check mandate was to decrease gun deaths as a result of domestic violence. Studies show that gun possession makes death from domestic violence disputes increase by five-fold.** Having only been enacted three years ago, this law has evidently prevented many deaths as a result of domestic violence in Washington, as much as the gun lobby would love to dispute this fact. Like I-1491 however, there is no component requiring mental health evaluations for minors who display signs of violent tendencies or a strong affinity for firearms in this law.
Simply removing access to firearms is not a plausible solution because there are too many registered gun owners in the state; approximately one third of Washingtonians are registered gun owners.*** If minors were suddenly legally forbidden from accessing a parent’s firearms, implementation and enforcement of the new law would be nearly impossible. CEO of the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, Renée Hopkins, said of the Freeman tragedy:
“Moments of crisis can quickly turn deadly with easy access to firearms, especially when children are involved. The impact of gun violence reverberates long past the shooting itself, and communities across our state are far too familiar with its devastating impact. Working together to protect children by removing access to firearms, we can save lives.”
By taking Hopkins’s call to action to remove a child’s access to firearms one step further and preventing the desire of a mentally troubled child to harm their peers with firearms, senseless tragedies such as this can be easily preventable.
The laws that Washington has in place have been successful at preventing small-scale shootings, but large, school shootings are most likely to be stopped by means besides simply taking guns away for a definite amount of time. Mental health evaluations and counseling in schools are greatly underfunded in Washington, which makes preventing school shootings such as the one at Freeman High last week much more difficult.
*Statistics from Everytown for Gun Safety
**Statistics from Alliance for Gun Responsibility
***Statistic from USACarry.com