Washington schools remain on edge more than two months after Nikolas Cruz murdered 17 people at the Parkland, Florida, high school where he used to be a student. And who can blame them? Walking around campus today can make any student or teacher feel vulnerable; the sense of exposure only grew with our Legislature’s failure to restrict access to death-dealing weapons like the AR-15 wielded by 19-year-old Cruz.
But two efforts launched on the same day last week illustrate how Washington refuses to be a passive bystander to gun violence.
The first was Friday’s initial meeting of a new task force formed to study mass shootings in our state.
Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, won $50,000 from the 2018 Legislature to start the work group. In press releases, O’Ban said that after gathering “smart people in a room” over several months, the group will draft a plan “to identify potential perpetrators, and prevent as many of these senseless killings as possible.”
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The group aims to collect at least 260,000 signatures over the next 10 weeks and force a statewide vote in November to raise the legal age to buy assault weapons from 18 to 21.
Of these two efforts, the first focuses on prolonged talk, while the second centers on immediate action. We prefer the action-oriented approach.
Backers of the initiative campaign have their work cut out for them, with a mountain of signatures to collect by July 6. They’ll have two fewer months to do it than proponents of a successful gun-safety campaign had two years ago; Initiative 1491, which allows families to petition for “extreme-risk” orders, was filed in February 2016.
But public opinion weighs heavily in their favor – even in conservative Eastern Washington, where polls show solid support to raise the minimum age to buy an AR-15. The initiative would enact other overdue changes, too, including waiting periods and enhanced background checks for assault-weapon sales.
It’s frustrating that the Legislature failed to make these changes in 2018. Then again, as we’ve noted before, Washington’s strongest gun reforms of the past decade have come via ballot box.
Like I-1491 in 2016 and I-594 two years earlier, this proposal needs and deserves your signature.
Meanwhile, the new task force on mass shootings moves at a more leisurely pace. The group includes several law enforcement voices plus representatives from education, mental health, the ACLU and the Attorney General’s office. (Unfortunately, no actual school shooting victims or survivors sit on the panel.)
Washington isn’t alone in convening a group of experts; after the Parkland massacre, creating task forces was the de rigueur response for state and local governments around the U.S. eager to show they’re doing something.
President Trump formed his own commission on school violence, headed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, but it quickly became a magnet for political rhetoric, such as talk of arming teachers, while draining momentum from meaningful federal firearm legislation.
O’Ban’s state task force could have some value; it could be helpful for public safety leaders to identify school shooter warning signs, share strategies for intervention and assess the effectiveness of laws already on the books.
But work groups always run a risk of turning into busywork groups – at its first meeting Friday, the mass shooting task force had an agenda item to adopt a definition of “mass shooting” – while initiative campaigns have no time to waste.
Government file cabinets are full of reports from well-meaning task forces. We hope this one leads to a bipartisan effort in the 2019 legislative session to make Washington schools more secure – not just talk about it.
But our greater hope is that by the time the task force adjourns its final meeting in November, voters already will have taken bold, possibly life-saving action.