AndyO Blog

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Seattle shootings: When violence comes to your neighborhood

The news arrived in an instant message from my brother at work. I'd just returned from lunch and was getting ready to dive back into a massive project.

Erik [1:01 PM]:

Did you see that <my son's school> is/was on lockdown?

Andy [1:01 PM]:

No.

Erik [1:01 PM]:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/killed-injured-seattle-cafe-shooting/story?id=16459770

Andy [1:01 PM]:

Shit.

In less than a minute, the world seemed to turn upside down. My heart raced. According to the report, someone had opened fire and killed multiple people in a cafe in the University District. A woman downtown had also been killed during a carjacking. Police didn't know if the incidents were related.

I knew if schools were on lockdown, then the shooting was close by. I looked up the name of the cafe where the shootings happened, Cafe Racer, and realized I'd parked in front of it many times on my way to Trading Musician.

It's a mile and a half from my house.

I knew there was nothing I could do, so I sent a message to my wife to make sure she knew about it (especially since she was picking up our son from the locked down school). 

Trying to make sense

After I got home and started to read about the incident, the sadness started to set in. This guy had killed five people. The woman who died in the carjacking in downtown Seattle -- over five miles away from Cafe Racer -- was one of the victims. 

I watched people on Facebook trying to make sense of the brutality. My fellow bandmate, Chris, wrote:

OMG, what is happening here. I have stopped in Cafe Racer for espressos in the a.m. many times, and for drinks with Mary in the p.m. once in a while. What? Completely peaceful, funky U-District dive bar, until...senseless gun violence! Sad, sad...

The media pounced on the statistic that there were 21 homicides in Seattle in 2012, more than all of 2011. (The 10-year homicide average from 2000-2010 is 26 per year.)

Then I saw that the shooter himself, identified later as Ian Stawicki -- who had shot himself as police closed in -- had died at Harborview.

Later, I read a thoughtful article on Time.com called Seattle Shootings: Six People Dead in One Day. What�s Behind the Violence? It explored how an event like this affects children at the schools and their parents who are left to explain what happened. As my son told me, the teachers and other school officials don't give any details. The kids don't even know if it's a real event or another drill, which kind of makes sense. My son said, "They don't tell us anything, because some people freak out."

At my son's school, he said they spent an hour on the floor and then after that could walk around inside the classroom. But they stayed in the same classroom until they were released from school, three hours later.

As I've gotten older, I've started to realize that violence like this happens. You just hope that it's not going to happen to you. Which is why this event is different: When this kind of shooting occurs a mile or so away from your house, it all of sudden becomes less of an abstraction. I've stopped in front of Caf� Racer; I could have been standing there when the gunman came out.

There have been other incidents in Seattle recently with people being killed or injured with stray bullets, which makes it even more apparent how little we're all in control. 

Aftermath

As the memorial piled up in front of Cafe Racer, the citizens of Seattle continued to try and make sense of what happened. Details came out about Stawicki from his family about how the clues were there. Details came out from a hero at the scene who attacked Stawicki with barstools and probably saved three people's lives.

But there are two major parts to this story:

First, Stawicki was suffering from mental illness and a history of violence (in some cases, the violence was against his own family). His father talked about how he would have needed to lie to commit his son to an institution against his will.

Second, guns are too easy to buy and conceal in Washington State, where the  laws just aren't set up to prevent someone like Stawicki from getting guns. (More on that later.)

What we know now is Stawicki legally obtained "six .45-caliber or 9-mm handguns since 1993, including .45-caliber handguns in 2006 and 2008 from Lynnwood and Bothell gun shops," according to this Seattle Times article. The problem is there were no red flags that would have prevented Stawicki from buying guns; he didn't have a felony record or had never been committed to a mental hospital.

In 2008, he started getting in trouble, including four domestic violence-related misdemeanors against his girlfriend, who later recanted. Then, against his own brother (this time his mother changed her story).

I'm not blaming the Stawicki family from protecting their son against going to prison, or even the girlfriend (who might have feared for her life). But it seems like if someone starts showing signs of rage and mental illness, then that person should no longer be able to possess a gun -- or in Stawicki's case, six guns. And if he's caught with a gun on him, the punishment is severe.

Stawicki was completely within the law to have guns on him when he entered Cafe Racer. It was only when he opened fire that it became illegal.

Three ideas

So, what can we do, citizens of Seattle, Washington State, and the United States? Here are my ideas. I'm sure there are many more great ideas out there.

1. Make it easier for a person with mental illness to get help -- either voluntarily or involuntarily. Mental illness is something that can be treated and needs to be treated. Washington State's recent mental health parity laws have helped, but more needs to be done. Cutting budgets from mental health organizations is only going to make this worse.

2. Make it much harder for certain people to get a gun (or guns) and get a concealed weapons permit. Not only did Stawicki buy six guns, but he also had a concealed weapons permit. According to what I've read, the police had to issue Stawicki a permit, since he met the standards -- even if the police knew he was dangerous.

I've heard that lawmakers in Washington State are looking at changing one word to handle cases like this. The word in this sentence would change from "shall" to "may" in the Concealed Pistol License.

(1) The chief of police of a municipality or the sheriff of a county shall within thirty days after the filing of an application of any person, issue a license to such person to carry a pistol concealed on his or her person within this state for five years from date of issue, for the purposes of protection or while engaged in business, sport, or while traveling.

Washington's gun laws are much more permissive than a state like California, according to this LA Times editorial. As the article says:

Unlike Washington, this state has a more restrictive "may issue" standard when it comes to concealed weapons permits. Background checks are more extensive and might involve interviewing an applicant's family, which would have turned up the information that they thought Stawicki was missing several marbles. Some California jurisdictions even require psychological testing for permit applicants. Moreover, Stawicki would have had to demonstrate good cause to carry a concealed weapon -- typically, applicants in California have to show they're under some kind of physical threat, perhaps by someone they've taken out a restraining order against. Being a security guard is also typically considered good cause. Stawicki didn't meet those standards.

Personally, I'd be fine with abolishing all guns. Since I know that's not going to happen, can we at least make it harder for people who shouldn't be able to carry them? 

3. Teach compassion from a young age. When His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet came to Seattle a few years ago, his message was about compassion and it really resonated with me. Here's part of an essay he wrote about this and it gets at the heart of how this can change things.

Whether people are beautiful and friendly or unattractive and disruptive, ultimately they are human beings, just like oneself. Like oneself, they want happiness and do not want suffering. Furthermore, their right to overcome suffering and be happy is equal to one's own. Now, when you recognize that all beings are equal in both their desire for happiness and their right to obtain it, you automatically feel empathy and closeness for them. Through accustoming your mind to this sense of universal altruism, you develop a feeling of responsibility for others: the wish to help them actively overcome their problems. Nor is this wish selective; it applies equally to all. As long as they are human beings experiencing pleasure and pain just as you do, there is no logical basis to discriminate between them or to alter your concern for them if they behave negatively.

People who are compassionate are less likely to hurt or bully others. Was there a point in the past when an act of compassion or kindness could have changed Stawicki's course? We'll never know. It sounds like his family tried to help and ran out of options. You can only deal with rage for so long, and no one wants to believe that a family member or friend could do something like this.

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