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September 19, 2013 at 11:21 AM

The gun-free zone program is an effort in futility

(Illustration by Paul Tong / Op Art)

(Illustration by Paul Tong / Op Art)

Editor’s note: Osa Hale is an intern in our opinion section. She just graduated from Western Washington University.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and the organization Washington CeaseFire have introduced a “Gun-Free Zone” program, encouraging businesses to exercise their rights to ban guns from their private property. This is a quick and easy attempt to stand up to gun violence.

Starbucks said Tuesday it would join the gun-free program in an open letter from Chief Executive Howard Schultz.

Although it makes sense to try to remove guns from the equation, the gun-free program seems like trying to bail out a sinking ship with a leaky bucket. It’s better than nothing, but not by much.

Gun-rights advocates like Alan Gottlieb, who founded the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation, see the program as all flash and no substance.

“[The mayor] could do lots of other things to prevent crime,” Gottlieb said. “Punish those people who misuse firearms, not those who own and use them properly.”

Gottlieb went on to say the program could actually endanger customers. A criminal, the argument goes, wouldn’t care about the rules, and may target a gun-free business, seeing it as an easy mark.

David Meinert, one of the owners of Capitol Hill’s Lost Lake Cafe & Lounge, signed up as a gun-free zone. He mentioned that, until recently, bars did not allow customers to carry guns (most still don’t), yet were not targeted for gun violence. The goal is to take make his customers feel safe, and to change the dialogue around gun ownership.

“I don’t want my customers who are not armed to have to worry about customers that are,” Meinert said. “There’s this mythology that if you carry a gun, you’re safer than if you don’t. But that isn’t true. Statistically, where there are guns, it is not as safe.”

Gun-control options available to local government are quite limited in Washington. The state has preemption, which means that local laws cannot be more restrictive than state laws.

This was demonstrated in 2009, when then-Mayor Greg Nickels signed an executive order to prohibit guns in parks, community centers and city-run buildings. Following a lawsuit filed by gun-rights activists, including the National Rifle Association, the ban was overturned. Short of following in his predecessor’s futile footsteps, it seems this is the best McGinn can do at the moment.

That doesn’t change the fact that the new gun-free program has no teeth.

More people die from gun violence than from motor vehicle accidents in King County, according to McGinn’s office, and the county’s estimated annual cost of gun deaths and hospitalizations is $177 million. What should be done, then, to prevent this?

A majority of gun owners across the country say their No. 1 reason for having a firearm is protection, according to a Pew study from February of this year.  McGinn would be wiser, Gottlieb said, to improve funding for mental health programs and make sure that law enforcement, especially probation officers, are preventing unlawful gun possession.

But targeting criminals can only go so far.

“Right now, it is harder to buy and sell cars than it is to buy or sell a gun. This should not be the case,” Meinert said. “Gun laws should change, at a federal or state level.”

The ongoing national dialogue is leaning this way; most Americans support background checks for private transactions and gun-show sales, and the majority support banning assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, according to another Pew study from February.

In Washington, this division will likely be put to the test in 2014, with two initiatives: Initiative 591 and Initiative 594. I-591 would ban background checks that are not a part of required national standards, and prevent confiscation of firearm without due process. I-594 would expand background check requirements to include most sales and transfers. The current law only requires checks on purchases from licensed dealers. Both initiatives are collecting signatures, and if they make it through the Legislature, will be on the ballot in November 2014.


Comments | Topics: gun control, mike mcginn, starbucks


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