KING COUNTY, Wash. - The King County Council hosted a discussion panel to address gun violence in the community. This scheduled session comes after the county revealed in the latest Firearm Violence Report there were more than 1,400 shots fired incidents in 2021.
Four women from different parts of the county joined the panel of speakers to share how gun violence impacted them and their families.
Tahana Salvadalena spoke about her grandfather who had a reputation of a violent temper. She told the council her grandfather shot her grandmother in the head and then turned the gun on himself in October 2010. She said two days later, her uncle shot himself in the head. In 2015, Salvadalena lost her mother to suicide.
"When all of this happened, I had three young children ages 6, 4 and 1," said Salvadalena. "I grieved carefully to protect my babies. I found showers are really good at hiding tears. Every day for about nine months I would wake up, get in the shower and cry, really cry. Sometimes I would get on my knees and beg my lost loved ones for forgiveness for not having saved them."
Others surviving the trauma of a slain loved one also opened their hearts and emotions to the King County Council as members listened to the impacts gun violence has had on their lives. And, gun violence isn’t only connected to crime. A Washington State Department of Health study showed in half of all suicides, a gun was used.
The University of Washington conducted a detailed study about the state's statistics on suicide.
Erin Cizma, whose father shot and killed himself in November 2002, said suicide isn’t always part of the conversation in preventing gun violence.
"There are many, many more families out there like mine—families who have been devastated by suicide. Families whose own experiences of gun violence don’t make the headlines, and we are the faces of every day gun violence. We are part of this bigger story of guns in America, and it’s really important to see the entire story. It’s important to see us," said Cizma.
Through their grief, the panelists called on county leaders to advocate for change in policies and systems to increase safety.
"Gun violence is a public health issue, it’s a public health crisis similar to COVID-19. I just want to point out the fact that it takes similar investments to what we’ve seen with COVID in order to see a difference with gun violence," said Lynniah Grayson, another panelist impacted by gun violence.
Grayson told the council the father of her child was one of four people shot outside a bar in February 2021. He was the only person that died from gunshot wounds. Grayson advocated for increased resources for mothers and children who need support in their healing from trauma. In her presentation, she recited a quote from the late Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, "Safety and security don’t just happen. They are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free violence and fear."
April Schentrup lost her 16-year-old daughter Carmen to gun violence. The child was one of 17 people killed in February 2018 after a gunman shot up a high school in Parkland, Florida with an AR-15 style rifle and high capacity magazines. Schentrup said one thing that could have saved her daughter’s life is more awareness about extreme protection orders against people who show warning signs of violent behavior.
"The one thing that I do ask is that you as council members is really make sure that the public is aware what an extreme protection order is. That they understand if they see someone at risk of harming themselves or others, there are ways that can legally get those firearms restrained temporarily through due process, and so on," said Schentrup.
The mother also said safe storage could have been a factor in preventing the Parkland school shooting.
"I know that King County has ‘Lock It Up,’ which is a program that I wish was put out there more, so that parents understand that maybe they’re buying a gun because they think they’re keeping their family safe, but bringing a gun into the home actually puts their family more at risk of gun violence, specifically suicides and unintentional shootings," said Schentrup.
Part of their plea for safer communities in King County suggests renewed investments in mental health services.
"If access to a gun can be restricted, even briefly, it can allow mental health providers the time to intervene and prevent a rash decision," said Salvadalena. "Policies and laws are the necessary tools to carefully keep the means and specifically the guns out of the hands of those that can drop that stone, creating those irreversible ripples forever."
Leaders from local organizations also participated in the discussion to provide updates on what their groups are doing to reduce gun violence.
"As the data points to, young people who are impacted by gun violence are disproportionately likely to engage in violence themselves by use of a gun. And so we engage them early when they’ve been impacted, their family members, the young people themselves. And we work with them closely to engage on a healing journey, so they can get to a place of wholeness," said Sean Goode, director of Choose 180.
Goode and other community organization leaders also offered suggestions to county leaders on what could be improved. Goode said change won’t happen until social and economic disparities are addressed.
"We will not truly be able to solve for this disease of violence, because the social determinants of health that dictate when a person is most vulnerable point clearly to this broad economic divide as a leading factor that continues to put people in harm’s way," said Goode.
County leaders also understood safer streets means supporting local groups that work with vulnerable youth who may be walking down a dangerous path. Deep Dive is a program within Community Passageways. It’s led by people who have real-life experiences with violence, and decided to change their lives.
"In 2007, midday rush hour traffic downtown Seattle, I was shot four times. That led to me feeling like I need to protect myself, and I started myself carrying a weapon. That led me to getting locked up, and I knew I had to change," said Brandon Shell, director of Deep Dive. "We’re trying to just help young people not make the same mistake we did. I don’t want to see a young person die or get shot or end up in jail. We’re just walking hand-in-hand with them."
Deep Dive offers outreach and resource navigators to help youth move in a positive direction forward.
"Young people need to be able to be young people. And that’s what we’re trying to provide. We’re walking hand-in-hand with them with an outreach worker that’s going to help them navigate the streets and getting up out of that," said Shell.
King County Council will use the session to build ideas on how to prevent gun violence and better protect the community. Those ideas will be discussed at the next session on August 17. That’s when council will also have an opportunity to talk about what resources can be funded in the next biennial budget.