Stopping School Shootings
East Bay students, legislators, and residents explore necessary steps to address gun control.
Two days after the Valentine’s Day 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, Oakland School Police Department Chief Jeff Godown paced the multipurpose room at Oakland’s defunct Cole Elementary. Dozens of teachers and school staff sat before him in plastic chairs, ringed by news cameras and reporters. The parking lot outside the Oakland School Police’s current headquarters bristled with antennae-topped TV news vans.
The educators were there for a half-day “active shooter response” training. The reporters were there because, with the horror of 17 dead and 17 injured in Parkland fresh in every mind, school-shooter response training was news—and rattled Bay Area families were hungry for reassurance that their children were safe from gun violence.
At six-foot-five, with brushed-back hair, a pressed police uniform, and a pistol on his hip, Godown cuts an imposing figure, but it was his words and demeanor that had the room holding its collective breath.
“We do not have a gun problem in this district,” he said, sharing a sliver of good news first. “But we have one in this country. In 2018, you’re going to need to go home and tell your child, who could be three or four, ‘When you’re in school tomorrow, coloring, if somebody comes in to try to kill you, this is what you need to do.’ That’s the most absurd, obscene discussion that needs to be had.”
Godown’s frustration was clear, as was the reason for the gathering: American children are being shot to death in school at a frighteningly regular pace (23 school shootings so far in 2018, as of press time), and drilling teachers and students to run or hide has proved to be a grossly inadequate response. Yet this seems to be the most—or least—our deeply polarized country can agree to offer our children.
To phrase the problem another way: We’re paralyzed by disagreement about how to stop school shootings. We talk about “hardening schools,” teaching empathy, regulating video games, funding mental-health programs, and arming teachers. But when it comes to crafting comprehensive solutions, Congress is even more divided than the citizenry with regard to potential countermeasures (such as mandating a universal background check for gun buyers, or establishing a national “red flag” law that can be used to temporarily restrict access to guns for anyone deemed a risk). As U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put it in July: “I don’t think at the federal level there’s much that we can do [about school shootings].”
Certainly, the past two decades of federal action—or inaction—on this issue bear out McConnell’s assessment. In the past 20 years—since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High in Colorado—there have been between five and 23 school shootings each year in the U.S. Yet Congress has managed to pass only one major federal law related to guns since Columbine, designed to strengthen record-keeping in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Students like 18-year-old Marissa Lapointe, who graduated from Walnut Creek’s Las Lomas High this past spring, refuse to accept the status quo. “Now is the time for politicians to … put political party aside and unite as citizens of the U.S.A. to make their country safe,” she says. “As kids, we’re told we don’t know what we’re talking about. But we do. We are the ones who go to school every day and fear getting shot. … I’ve studied this issue. I know that gun reform on a national level could reduce the amount of death.”
Setting an Example
While Chief Godown wasn’t offering easy comfort, the sliver of positive news he shared—that the Oakland Unified School District does not have a gun problem—serves as a good indicator for our region. Although there were two arrests of students threatening mass shootings at local schools (Valley View Middle in Pleasant Hill and California High in San Ramon) in the months following the Parkland shooting, students and teachers in California are, by relative standards, at a lower risk of being harmed by a school shooter than residents of most other states. California ranks 43rd out of the 50 states for rate of firearm deaths per capita. This comparably low ranking has a vital corollary: California has stricter gun laws than nearly every other state.
“One of the pillars of the gun lobby’s arguments is ‘Gun laws don’t work,’” says Kensington resident Griffin Dix, a soft-spoken retired anthropology professor and former tech-publication research director. “But California laws do work,” Dix asserts, “and are saving lots and lots of lives.”
Dix’s claim is based on data he began compiling in 2004, comparing gun-death rates in California to those in the U.S. overall. His research was spurred by an anguishing loss: In 1994, his 15-year-old son was accidentally killed by a fellow Berkeley High freshman showing off his father’s handgun, which was kept loaded in a bag next to the bed.
“In the ’80s and early ’90s, California’s firearms mortality rate was consistently higher than [that of] the rest of the U.S.,” Dix explains. But after a set of mass shootings—including the 1993 killing of nine people at a law firm in San Francisco—California began, year by year, to pass laws that exceeded the stringency of national and most other state laws. As the new laws took effect, Dix cowrote in a brief for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, “the firearm mortality rate in California began a steep decline, decreasing 56 percent from 1993 to 2016. … By 2016, the firearm mortality rate in California was substantially lower than the rate in the rest of the country.”
Dix is not alone in concluding that “strong [gun] laws save lives.” A 2016 meta-study by a Columbia University–led team found that “gun violence declined after countries pass a raft of gun laws at the same time.” In fact, there is vast documentation for the idea that gun safety can be legislated, and evidence shows that stronger state gun laws correlate with lower rates of gun deaths by state.
But that isn’t enough to quell Lapointe’s fears. “There still needs to be better control of people buying guns illegally,” she says. It’s not hard to purchase a gun “next door” in Nevada, for example, and bring it illegally across state lines.
Legal sales are also an issue. “Gun laws are stricter in California, and California ranks pretty low for rate of gun deaths … but I don’t feel safer here,” Lapointe adds. “There’s a gun store in Walnut Creek. I could buy a gun there with no issue; nothing would come up in a background check for me. I can get my hands on a weapon within days that could kill dozens of people.”
Kids Take a Stand
Lapointe is attuned to the same terrifying reality that Berkeley resident Briar Goldberg was thrust into as a 17-year-old student at Columbine, huddling in a teacher’s office while two senior boys went on a killing rampage. “It can happen to anybody, and it doesn’t matter what side [of the debate] you’re on,” Goldberg says. “Unless we make major changes, it may just be a matter of time before you get to join this club that no one wants to be a member of.”
Lapointe says she had an awakening during her senior year at Las Lomas. “With Parkland—that could have been me,” she says. “I mainly felt, Why isn’t anything being done? There is no reason I should go to school fearing for my safety, and no reason teachers should have to prepare every day for a shooter coming in.”
Inspired by Florida’s student activists, Lapointe worked with Diablo Valley College student Victor Tiglao to organize the Walnut Creek March for Our Lives a month after the Parkland shooting. Thousands of protesters of all ages came from throughout the Bay Area, pouring down Mt. Diablo Boulevard on a humid Saturday morning to call for comprehensive national gun legislation. Lapointe’s Las Lomas classmate Sienna Terry led the opening speeches, rousing the crowd by calling out, “American children are nine times more likely to die by gun violence than children anywhere else. … Congress, do your jobs. Enough.”
Local school districts, heeding the voices of students and families, are joining the efforts to press legislators for change. In April, the Mt. Diablo Unified School District passed a formal resolution on gun-violence prevention that resolved, among many things, “that the Board of Education of the District hereby demands action from our State and Federal Representatives to reinstate the assault weapon ban,” and that “federal and state elected officials … take immediate action to enact meaningful gun control legislation to prevent even one more child from being harmed by gunfire.”
A Teacher's Perspective
Three weeks after Oakland Unified’s active-shooter training, Oakland Technical High teacher Ethan Baum, 26, prepped his AP Government class for a schoolwide lockdown-and-barricade drill.
The kids were squirrelly, lobbing questions and challenges at Baum as he described the drill plan. “We need to practice reacting quickly, blockading doors, obstructing potential shooter sight lines, and hiding silently,” he said.
Then a siren sounded. Suddenly, everyone was in motion, wordless and focused, collectively pushing metal-frame chair-desk combos toward the classroom’s two doors. Kids dropped the creaky window blinds on the far side of the room and then slid into seated positions along the wall, out of sight of a phantom shooter. In moments, the room was silent.
Later, Baum shares that despite the fact that he’s a National Rifle Association (NRA) member who regularly visits shooting ranges, he’s “99 percent sure” he doesn’t want to be armed as a teacher. “That’s not a solution to school shootings,” he says. “Shooters aren’t reasonable, [so arming teachers won’t deter them]. … You can’t have teachers walking around with rifles on their backs; that’s ridiculous. It gets infinitely complicated.”
Baum is skeptical that most of the proposed legislation to mitigate gun violence (including a ban on assault weapons) would be both effective and acceptable to lawful gun owners—with one major exception. “California’s Gun Violence Restraining Order is promising,” he says. “A family member can report a [person they see as a] risk, and a judge can then remove firearms from that person’s home until the person is cleared by a psychologist. I think that could help.”
While some, like Baum, express doubts, many students and school districts across the country insist that responsibility for shifting our culture of gun violence belongs to national leaders. One has to ask, in the face of mounting, evidence-based studies that show restricting access to guns lowers rates of gun deaths: What’s holding back our leaders from taking action?
Congressman Mark DeSaulnier of Concord, a former longtime Republican who became a Democrat in 2000 and represents California’s 11th Congressional District (which includes most of Contra Costa County), has a theory.
“Some of the 30 bills and ideas I’ve introduced are fairly noncontroversial,” DeSaulnier says. “For instance, I talk to representatives about threat assessments [a process of evaluating people who threaten violence]. Contra Costa does a good job with this. They partner with school districts [and] county mental-health systems, and they can show dozens and dozens of cases where their action has prevented gun violence. … But when I talk to Republican colleagues, they’re afraid of [being seen as approving something] a Democrat has said.”
Perhaps DeSaulnier is right, and many politicians may not even debate mild gun-safety measures for fear they’ll lose support from their pro-gun constituents and the powerful NRA. But national polls show that the vast majority of the general public favors passing some specific federal laws, such as a universal background check for all gun sales and a national “red flag” law.
Hayward resident Mike DiBona is a multi-gun-owning, 28-year-old welder who loves target shooting and whose thinking about gun legislation is consistent with national survey results.
“I’m in favor of universal background checks,” DiBona says. “If we’re talking about certain people not having guns because they’re dangerous—sounds good to me. I don’t think everyone should have a gun. Where I stop is if you’re talking about banning or confiscating guns. Then I need to know a lot more about your intentions.”
While DiBona says he wants to vote for politicians who “are favorable to gun owners,” he has previously voted for candidates “who are now trying to enact extremely strong gun laws,” he notes. (DiBona admits, however, that he was not aware of those candidates’ gun stances at the time of the election.) “I try to vote based on who I think is going to be good for the job,” he explains.
If DiBona is even somewhat emblematic of the current national mood, it would seem the time is right for politicians to come out in favor of moderate but comprehensive federal gun legislation. So, perhaps the best thing any citizen can do to help prevent shootings is to become educated about voting choices and which candidates take a stance on gun control—and then vote.
“There’s a denial that goes on,” Dix says. “I was in denial myself until my son died. I thought, Probably we should have better gun laws, and didn’t know much about it. … So I want people in our state and federal legislature to make this a priority.”
Lapointe agrees. “After every mass shooting, we have a month, month and a half to keep talking, and then the talking stops,” she says. “We need to keep pushing on the people in Washington, because if we go silent, they will do nothing.”
Take it from Goldberg. In the aftermath of Columbine, she remembers thinking, At least the government will pass laws to fix this so it can never happen again.
Today, she feels differently. “Thinking, Yeah, something should be done, but not taking action is not an option,” she says. “We’re all connected to the problem.”
The California Advantage
Two reasons the Golden State is a national leader in fighting gun violence.
1. The California Preemption Anomaly
In California, unlike most other states, many city governments have the power to make legal decisions that promote and protect citizens’ general welfare. Elsewhere, state laws “preempt” legislation passed at the local level when the two conflict.
Mike McLively, senior staff attorney at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco, explains: “We are in one of the few U.S. states where you can get ordinances passed at the local level. We started advocating for cities to change their gun ordinances. Successful city-level changes percolated up to the state, and throughout the 1990s, more and more policies were adopted at the state level until, by the 2000s, California had the strictest, strongest gun-safety laws in the country.”
2. The Gun Violence Restraining Order (GVRO)
The GVRO is a 2016 law that empowers family and household members or law enforcement officers to petition a judge to remove guns and the ability to buy guns from a person deemed dangerous to themselves or others, for up to a year.
If the judge agrees that there is reasonable evidence of a threat, he or she can issue a temporary firearms restraining order within 24 hours. The person deemed a threat has 24 hours to surrender his or her guns and ammunition; the judge then decides at a second hearing whether to extend the order for a year. California has issued more than 250 GVROs to date.
What You Can Do
Know your school's crisis system.
Read the emergency-response and school-site-safety plans; meet your school resource officer.
Make gun safety a part of ordinary parenting.
Ask if there are firearms in homes where your child plays, and if they are locked up.
Understand candidates' stances on gun legislation.
Review lawmakers’ voting records on govtrack.us, congress.gov, or the California state legislature website; review claims on factcheck.org and ballotpedia.org.
Support community gun-violence prevention programs.
California Partnership for Safe Communities and Central and East Contra Costa County Ceasefire are two local organizations.
Register to vote—and then vote.