In the week since a young man went on a shooting spree with an AR-15 assault rifle at a Florida high school, demands for stricter gun control measures have been met with enthusiastic support by liberals while counterclaim calls by conservatives have focused on beefing up school security and mental health treatment while largely ignoring gun control.
Top elected San Luis Obispo County officials are also ideologically divided, though there’s some bipartisan common ground for a few.
The Tribune asked local elected officials their thoughts on mass shootings in schools and elsewhere, and what they think should be done.
While the two liberal members of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors and the Central Coast’s Democratic Congressman offered their thoughts, none of the board’s three conservatives responded as of Friday to questions sent to them Monday.
Supervisor Lynn Compton has been out of the county for a family emergency and unable to respond, according to her legislative aide, and was absent at this week’s board meeting. Supervisor Debbie Arnold declined to comment, and board Chairman John Peschong did not respond to repeated requests.
SLO County Sheriff Ian Parkinson, District Attorney Dan Dow, Central Coast Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham and Republican Congressional candidates Justin Fareed and Michael Erin Woody also weighed in.
No local official or candidate who responded said they are members of the NRA, and just one has accepted an NRA donation: Fareed accepted $2,500 in the 2016 election cycle but said Thursday that he “will not be accepting a donation from the NRA this election cycle.”
Both liberal members of the County Board of Supervisors said they support a ban on private ownership of military grade tactical weapons and gear such as bump stocks and high-capacity magazines. Bump stocks convert a legal semi-automatic rifle into a mostly automatic weapon.
“They have no legitimate purpose in hunting or other reasonable private uses of firearms — they are designed solely to kill people,” District 2 Supervisor Bruce Gibson said.
District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill added that he thought possession of such a weapon should amount to a felony, which would lead to a lifetime prohibition on firearm ownership.
“These are weapons of mass destruction used to kill innocent people,” Hill said. “It must stop.”
Hill said that following mass shootings, “a dread of hopelessness comes on us as we know the NRA and the hundreds of lawmakers they own place constitutional sophistry and fear tactics above the safety and well-being of the country.”
But both are hopeful the Florida shooting will lead to change, though past shootings should have been watershed moments in their own right, they said.
Both said engagement this time by youths has been inspiring, especially that of Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez, who called “BS” on the argument that tougher gun laws don’t decrease gun violence.
“Hers was a cry for the ages — from the head and heart, equally gut-wrenching and inspiring — and I agree with her completely,” Gibson said. “She destroys, with clear evidence, the pathetic assertion that tougher gun regulation won’t reduce gun violence. Even if guns remain in private hands, tougher regulation sends the message that we must dismantle our country’s singularly toxic culture of gun violence.”
“My hope resides in the young students,” Hill said. “As we have seen time and time again, they have the most to lose.”
One area of common ground among both Democrats and Republicans is the need for mental health support.
Last week, U.S. Rep Salud Carbajal, who represents San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties as well as a portion of Ventura County, focused on mental health, calling the shooting in a prepared statement a “horrific act of violence... perpetrated by an individual in crisis.”
Carbajal introduced a bill that would financially encourage all states to enable family members or law enforcement officials to seek a “gun violence prevention order” from a local court. Five states currently have so-called red flag laws that temporarily stop someone who poses a threat from purchasing or possessing a gun.
The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.
“I lost my older sister to suicide with a firearm at a young age. What I’ve learned since, is that temporarily preventing people from having a gun while in a state of crisis saves lives,” Carbajal said. “We owe these families more than just our thoughts and prayers.”
Some local Republicans who responded said tightening restrictions on legal access to guns won’t prevent future tragedies, while some said legislation can offer one solution. While all agreed that school security and mental health treatment should be increased, Parkinson and Dow also took aim at existing California laws they say increase gun violence.
“I would have hoped that any one of these tragic shootings would have been a watershed moment, but they weren’t,” Parkinson said. “I would also hope that if this is that moment, then we discuss the entire problem.”
Parkinson said that California has the strictest gun laws in the nation, which he enforces, including recently passed laws that he said “restrict ownership and functionality of the AR-15.” Those restrictions did not prevent the San Bernardino shooting, in which two shooters used illegally obtained AR-15s, he said.
“While all of these evil acts involved guns, many of them also possibly involved mental health, drug issues or other social conflicts that have not been shared or determined,” Parkinson said. “We must look at all of the bigger picture that leads to this behavior.”
That includes violent video games and movies, which Parkinson said “has desensitized our youth to violent actions.”
He added the Sheriff’s Office has recently invested in law enforcement and public training to prepare for and prevent such a situation, developed digital maps for almost all county schools to provide the quickest response times, and purchased and begun installing a phone app for all county school faculty members that alerts law enforcement of any incident and its location.
“I am not aware of any other Sheriff in California that has taken this many proactive steps to protect its residents, especially the most vulnerable, our youth, and I will continue to do so,” Parkinson said.
On Wednesday night, Dow posted an ABC News video to his Facebook page that he told The Tribune “sums up (his) thoughts about the horror that happened in Florida.”
It was of Andrew Pollack, father of Meadow Pollack, who was killed in the Florida shooting, urging President Donald Trump to increase school security before tackling gun law reform, which Pollack called “another fight, another battle.”
Dow did, however, point to laws passed by voters in the past four years that have made California “more friendly to gun violence,” such as 2014’s Proposition 47, which both Dow and Parkinson noted dropped the theft of firearms worth less than $950 from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Dow said 2016’s Proposition 57 “falsely led voters to believe that only non-violent felons would be eligible for a new early release program,” when crimes most people would consider violent — many involving guns — actually apply.
One solution he points to is “Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act of 2018,” an initiative in the signature-gathering stage for which Dow serves as on the executive committee. The initiative would reverse some elements of both Props 47 and 57 and redefine certain crimes as violent, leading to longer sentences.
“(I) will continue to work tirelessly to turn back the tide of recent soft on crime ‘reforms’ that are making California less safe than ever before,” Dow said.
Cunningham, an attorney who in part practices criminal defense, said that while he’s “beyond saddened” by the shooting, the country needs “to set aside the typical partisan mudslinging and take a holistic look at this issue.”
That includes having an “honest and informed dialogue about how we can respect the rights of law abiding citizens but also restrict firearm access for the mentally ill and felons.”
He agreed there needs to be increased security in schools and better communication between officials. But he also said where there are gaps in the law — including “bump stocks” and federal background check loopholes — legislation is appropriate.
“In the wake of this horrific tragedy, the hard and necessary work is to figure out how we can prevent future tragedies in a manner consistent with due process and constitutional rights,” he said.
Congressional candidate Fareed, who is running against Carbajal in the June primary, said he is opposed the ownership of military-grade firearms or ammunition and that California laws already on the books should be enforced. Fareed also said he supports the premise of gun restraining order laws such as the one Carbajal has proposed, as well as banning bump stocks.
But “more should be done to support responsible gun ownership while working to put a stop to those who would do harm to the innocent,” he said.
“We’ve seen what happened in Florida, and we saw what happened in the UCSB Massacre as a result of highly unstable individuals falling through the cracks,” Fareed said. “We should make it impossible for anyone with a severe mental illness to own a firearm.”
Woody, also running for Carbajal’s seat, said that all gun-related deaths need to be addressed uniquely and that both Democrats and Republicans need to make compromises.
“Liberal groups have interpreted gun free zones to mean security free zones, and that perspective has to change,” Woody said. “Likewise, conservative groups claim that ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people,’ yet argue against comprehensive background checks.”
Additionally, he said liberal groups need to address mental health issues without worrying about political correctness and condemned as “unacceptable” the GOP-led Congress failing to ban bump stocks following the Las Vegas shooting.
“Anyone who claims that their side has no culpability is part of the problem,” Woody said.