Wise people learn the lessons of history. And history says gun violence has been somewhat less of a problem in Santa Clara County than in many places in California and beyond. Nor has the County endured spectacular mass slayings.
But history also says that dozens of Santa Clara County die in firearms-related violence every year, whether by suicide or homicide. And there’s no reason to believe a mass shooting could not happen here.
That’s why hundreds of people of good will — and widely varying opinions on firearms — turned out at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds on a Saturday morning in late April. They came for a civil community exchange of ideas and opinions on what might be done to reduce the carnage. The key findings will be compiled and submitted to the Board of Supervisors to help guide any debate over policy changes.
Supervisor Dave Cortese called the summit staff in the wake of the recent shooting deaths of 17 students and the wounding of 17 others at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. That incident sparked yet another round of often intensely acrimonious debate about the role of guns in America.
On hand for the County summit was a survivor of a mass shooting, people who lost family members to suicide and gang violence, Black Lives Matter sympathizers, defenders of a broad interpretation of the Second Amendment, and people who favor strict gun control.
All were encouraged to mix with those with different opinions and get to know one another on a human level.were asked to listen deeply, and to respect the other person’s viewpoint. Changing minds was not on the agenda. Rather, understanding the impact of gun violence on the community we all share, regardless of opinions on solutions — that was the goal.
Rational dialogue on gun violence
Outside the hall at the fairgrounds, Supervisor Dave Cortese explained why he called the summit.
“This is one of the most polarizing issues, seemingly, that we face in this country right now,” Cortese said. “And what that means is that communication has broken down, that people haven’t been talking to each other along the diversity of opinions that exist.
“We felt that it was really, really important here in Santa Clara County, where we have a reputation for dialogue, good communication, harmony within our community, to get people from disparate points of view together here. To sit down in tabletop exercises, have facilitated dialogue, and really cut across all the issues that we see when it comes to violence that’s perpetrated by firearms.”
Range of topics
There were several rounds of talks on a wide array of firearms-related topics. Newsbeat didn’t hear any heated discussions, though perhaps a sharp comment or two arose here and there, given how emotional the topic of gun violence is.
Going in, participants were hopeful that people could exchange their views in a respectful manner. Community activist Jenny Higgins Bradanini agreed that talking about guns is crucial. But it was the process of creating respectful dialogue that was the real draw for her, as that skill can be used to find common ground on other divisive issues, too.
“We’re going to learn how to talk about it,” she said. “This is a great opportunity, and I hope it turns out being a model for other counties, states and even the country.”
Guns by the numbers
A couple of days before the summit, the County’s Department of Public Health released some statistics to help inform the debate. One chart showed that gun sales in the County increased 156 percent from 2001 to 2105. Striking as that may be, it’s a fairly modest number among peer urban counties in the state. In Sacramento County, for example, sales quadrupled in that period.
Slicing the data another way shows that Santa Clara County had the 15th lowest rate of gun sales among all 58 counties in that period, averaging 1,337 sales a year per 100,000 residents. Yet well over 350,000 guns changed hands during the period.
Other stats released by the Santa Clara County Public Health Department in advance of the summit:
- From 2007-2016, the County’s gun violence death rate ranged from a low of 3.4 per 100,000 residents in 2010 to a high of 4.8 the next year. But mostly they hovered near 4.4 or 4.5 with no discernable trend up or down. (California’s overall gun death rate was typically north of 7 per 100,000 during the past decade, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
- Almost 60 percent of gun-related deaths in Santa Clara County during the decade were the result of self-inflicted gunshots (typically suicide).
Walter Wilson, a social rights advocate and board member of the African American Community Service Agency, added his voice to the gun violence summit. “Just having the discussion, I think, is very important for our community, to get ahead of it before anything catastrophic happens,” he said.
That’s just what Cortese said he was aiming for. “I think we can lead the nation in terms of how to have a productive dialogue and deal with meaningful public policy around firearms violence,” Cortese said.
Author: Chuck Carroll