Request for gun violence awareness week spurs debate in Douglas County

County commissioners reject plea for proclamation

Jessica Gibbs
jgibbs@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 2/5/20

Roughly a dozen women sat in the front row at the Jan. 28 Douglas County Board of Commissioners meeting, their arms wrapped around one another for support, their eyes fixed steadily on commissioners, …

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Request for gun violence awareness week spurs debate in Douglas County

County commissioners reject plea for proclamation

Posted

Roughly a dozen women sat in the front row at the Jan. 28 Douglas County Board of Commissioners meeting, their arms wrapped around one another for support, their eyes fixed steadily on commissioners, as they readied to share their experiences with gun violence.

Nara Altmann told how the May 7 shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch traumatized her family. The sounds of screams and gunfire left her daughter, then in sixth grade, afraid of fireworks, she told Colorado Community Media.

“She’s doing OK,” Altmann, of Lone Tree, said. But “the main issue is establishing trust.”

The women were there to to urge commissioners to formally recognize National Gun Violence Survivors Awareness Week, which runs from Feb. 1-8, saying it honors victims and spurs community conversations. The board, however, said no, fearing the proclamation could be a lightning rod sparking contentious gun debates.

“Gun violence is real,” said Commissioner Abe Laydon — who lost a close friend in a recent fatal shooting — in a Jan. 30 email in response to questions about the board’s concerns from Colorado Community Media. “The individuals that spoke at our hearing were heard by name and we grieved alongside them with our hearts open. That said, ceremonial statements on gun violence prevention can be highly polarizing and prevent productive dialogue.”

But Sue Tassaddikari, who came to support the proclamation in honor of her grandson, a STEM freshman during the shooting that killed one student and injured eight others, strongly disagreed. Her eyes brimmed with tears at the board’s rejection.

“Anything that the community can do for anybody that’s a survivor of gun violence of any type,” she said, “is a positive thing.”

‘Deeply impacted’

The group who attended the Jan. 28 meeting included mothers, relatives and close friends of children killed, injured or nearly hurt in shootings. Most are Douglas County residents who discussed shooting incidents in the county. One mother told about her son’s death in Aurora. Another woman and her family were neighbors and friends of Ty Tesoriero, a 10-year-old killed by his father in a September murder-suicide in Lone Tree. A few are involved in national gun violence prevention groups.

Beyond their personal stories, the group believes high-profile gun violence incidents in the county point to a local problem that needs attention.

The December 2017 shooting death of Deputy Zackari Parrish by a mentally ill Highlands Ranch resident, multiple murder-suicides of parents and children and other tragedies that didn’t grab headlines all shook the community in addition to the STEM attack, they said.

“Douglas County has been deeply impacted by the ripple effects of gun violence,” Highlands Ranch resident Jenny Guenther, a co-leader of Moms Demand Action in Douglas County, told commissioners at the meeting. “You will acknowledge all of the gun violence survivors in our county, regardless of political affiliation or ideology.”

Saying it hoped to honor all crime victims, the Republican board instead proposed a plan to pass a proclamation in April recognizing National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, which includes victims of gun crimes but also those of any crime. Such a proclamation, they said, would be more inclusive of all victims of violence.

In a Jan. 14 statement to Guenther and in conversations with Laydon, however, commissioners also said they wanted to avoid politicizing gun violence by declaring the awareness week.

“We also recognize that despite best intentions,” the statement said, “requests can also fall prey to unnecessary politicization.”

Guenther first asked commissioners for the proclamation in December. The board intially responded through its office manager, who said the board believed in “calling out the rights of all victims, not just victims of gun violence,” and would do so in April.

Guenther responded, asking commissioners to reconsider. Commissioners then co-authored the statement sent via Laydon, maintaining their position.

The women said they felt the board’s suggestion excluded gun violence survivors who were not victims of a crime — such as accidental shootings or suicides. They also didn’t want gun violence combined with other crime victims.

Guenther and other members particularly criticized the board’s stance that the proclamation would politicize gun violence. The proclamation does not discuss gun rights or gun control.

“I feel like we need to change the narrative so that talking about gun violence doesn’t need to be political,” said Guenther, who learned of the awareness week through Moms Demand Action, a branch of Everytown for Gun Safety, a national gun violence prevention organization.

But, she said, she was not representing the organization in asking for the proclamation and she and the others came as individual residents and survivors.

Political implications

Politics around gun control and gun violence issues, however, is difficult to ignore in largely Republican Douglas County, which has historically shown support for gun rights. The three commissioners often rely on the county’s citizen survey, which shows a divided county when it comes to Colorado’s red flag law.

In the 2019 survey, 53% of participants supported the law, which allows the temporary seizure of firearms from someone a judge deems to be a threat to themselves or others.

Robert Preuhs, chair of the Department of Political Science at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said the national and state polarization on gun violence “tends to bleed down into local politics as well.”

“Gun control is a really salient issue, so it becomes even more obvious to those decision makers that there are potentially repercussions to making decisions like this,” he said of the awareness week.

He predicted most of the county would have been fine with the proclamation or not have seen the political implications, although a vocal constituency would have most likely raised those concerns in commissioner meetings and electoral politics. Some ideas to avoid politics could be to declare a similar awareness week during different dates and under a different name, he said, or designate a remembrance site to honor gun violence victims.

Preuhs also noted 2020 is an election year — two Douglas County commissioner seats are up for election — and the state legislative session is likely to include gun issues, including continued debate of the red flag law, raising the stakes when it comes to gun issues.

“You just can’t escape politics in an election year,” Preuhs said.

How an awareness week is recognized is up to individual communities that proclaim it, Guenther said. And she doesn’t believe the organizations’ advocacy work should cloud the group’s mission of declaring National Gun Violence Survivors Week in Douglas County, which is to honor survivors, she said.

“It’s become so political we can’t talk about it,” she said. “That’s why we did not come to them as members of Mom Demand Action.”

‘That follows you forever’

The women left the Jan. 28 meeting feeling frustrated and unheard.

“Having one week of remembrance would give survivors time and place to honor ourselves and our experience,” said Stacie Penar, a Highlands Ranch resident.

The group’s criticism in general struck a chord with commissioners, who spent months after the STEM shooting working on initiatives to boost safety and security in local schools.

Commissioner Lora Thomas listed many of the board’s efforts and disputed any notion the county was not a statewide leader in student safety.

Three weeks after the STEM shooting, the board announced a grant process splitting $10 million in one-time funds among local schools, she noted. It launched a community response team, which pairs a law enforcement officer with a mental health clinician, to work with youths at home and school. It also approved more than $330,000 to pay for more school resource officers in the district. All show the board has been focused on solutions to gun violence, she said.

Commissioners thanked the women for sharing their stories and asked them to participate in the April awareness week.

“We just pray for your hearts to be healed however they can be,” board Chairman Roger Partridge said. “Thank you for speaking up today.”

But Tassaddikari wanted more than thanks. She wanted greater acknowledgment for survivors.

She tears up thinking about her grandson listening to a lockdown warning playing on a loop in his classroom as the sound of screams and gunshots echoed through the school on that May day.

Although he still has difficulty with sirens and loud noises, “I think he’s doing OK now,” she said. “But he will always be a survivor of a gun shooting. That follows you forever.”

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