Gun safety coalition seeks to begin dialogue at festival

Months of community organizing have led to the formation of a broad coalition intended to promote gun safety and suicide prevention on Vashon, but as national political divisions widen, some are hard pressed to find a seat at the table.

Before what was to be the group’s third official meeting last Friday, coalition leader Spring Hecht, a family therapist and member of the school board, waited to catch a ferry back to the island from Seattle. Meanwhile, at the Vashon Public Library, members began filing in one by one — representatives of island advocacy groups, some eminent, some new — they had come to discuss the logistics behind their upcoming debut at the annual Strawberry Festival. The coalition will have a vendor booth where they will distribute gun locks and educational materials from Children’s Hospital Seattle to gun owners, with topics including children, teens, and general mental health.

Those in attendance on Friday are no strangers to activism for causes related to gun safety. There was Janie Starr, of Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) Vashon, and Jane Neubauer, who belongs to Grandmothers Against Gun Violence, an organization started by islander Margy Heldring. Both women were appalled by the 2015 shooting of nine African Americans inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and said they became re-engaged with the issue of gun violence in the wake of other demonstrations and American shootings.

Islander Debby Jackson, a member of the coalition, attended a Grandmothers Against Gun Violence meeting at Heldring’s house recently and is involved in the planning stages of a candidate forum among those running for outgoing state Sen. Sharon Nelson’s seat. She called gun control efforts a “no-brainer,” comparing them to legislation mandating that cars be safer to drive.

Leslie Chertok, a therapist for 25 years, said she has seen how “gun violence affects human beings on this planet.” A faculty member at the Billions Institute Skid Row School for Large Scale Change, she was inspired by her colleague Nicole Hockley, who founded the organization Sandy Hook Promise after her 6-year-old son Dylan was killed at the elementary school in 2012.

Hecht beat the traffic and made it to the library, opening the meeting with introductions and some updates — a banner was created by island graphic designer Kirsten Nelson, and the locks were on their way. She restated the mission of the coalition, which is to enable conversation with all members of the community, to find common ground and to deepen mutual understanding.

“You’ll notice the absence of gun control or any advancement of legislation. This is really about where we all come together,” she said.

Sarah Sullivan, who joined the coalition after helping to start the Vashon chapter of Moms Demands Action for Gun Sense in America, said she was inspired by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. After 17 people were killed there during a mass shooting in February, survivors formed the group Never Again MSD and planned the March For Our Lives protest with the nonprofit Everytown For Gun Safety. Hundreds of islanders, including school district staff members, held their own march on the same day through downtown Vashon. That event was organized in part by islander Kevin Jones, who also initiated a series of discussions about gun safety beginning last winter with some Vashon groups that would go on to join the coalition.

“There were different pockets of interest, and it came up, like, what’s happening with the schools, what’s happening with legislation, and what are some local actions that we might take?” said Hecht of those early meetings. “An idea was developed to try to gather all of these interest groups together to launch some kind of island-wide gun safety campaign. There’s so much vision, there’s so much conflict and so much polarization when it comes to gun safety, with the Second Amendment, and we thought this is some way we can come together and find common ground and collaborate.”

Sullivan added that her husband is a game hunter and owns guns. The family has a gun safe at home.

According to Sullivan, Moms Demand Action gave away about 60 gun locks at the Vashon Farmers Market on June 2, which also marked Gun Safety Awareness Day.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m not sure those Farmers Market types are gun owners.’ I was wrong,” said Hecht, whose motivations for joining the coalition run in the same vein as her work with vulnerable student populations and young people of color.

“For me, as a parent and a school board director, just feeling like you’re on the sidelines and helpless was not acceptable,” she said, crediting Jones for setting the group’s tone. “We’re not trying to avoid conversations about common-sense gun control, but it can also be very divisive, and so we are trying to get to a place where we can all talk about these issues.”

Brad Shride, former vice president of the Vashon Sportsmen’s Club and the only licensed gun dealer on the island, was invited to join the coalition but declined out of fear of alienating his clients.

“I went to the first meeting, and I even answered a couple emails, but then after I gave it some serious thought. My reason is, I have a certain amount of clientele that kind of look to me as somewhat of a voice for them in regards to our side of the aspect,” he said.

Shride also cited a belief that the coalition is too political and that he did not feel entirely welcomed by the other members.

“Part of the problem for me is that the coalition is focused on the gun control situation. When I was sitting at the meeting, I did have a little bit of kind of a negative vibe,” he said, emphasizing that it was a personal feeling and that he would continue working on his own to address suicide prevention and firearm competency.

“I didn’t want to put myself in a position where I’m going to have people say that I took sides or something like that,” he said. “The gun thing is a heavy subject in the U.S. right now, and I believe that even though I’m a gun dealer, I’m doing my part to help.”

Shride conducts background checks before every sale and said he questions people when they come into his shop, Gid-R-Dun Guns, hoping to learn about what brought them in. He said that he passes out literature about suicide prevention and provides a gun lock with each purchase, having “sold more than 600 on the island, and every one of them goes with a gun lock.”

The coalition obtained 300 gun locks for the festival through a program called Project ChildSafe and was supported by the King County Sheriff’s Department, an officially recognized distribution partner for the program. The locks are cable-style and opened by key; included are instructions for how to fasten the lock on most types of firearm, such as automatic pistols, revolvers, shotguns and rifles.

The coalition is seeking to gauge the interest of specific populations at the Strawberry Festival: namely, parents who may not know how to talk to other parents about gun safety or who want to know more about keeping children safe at home; people who may be affected by mental health concerns or connected to those who are; and lastly, gun owners. Hecht shared that she will coordinate volunteers in anticipation of confrontations and that she would disseminate information about how to de-escalate such encounters, saying that it would be helpful for everyone to know what options they had. She was also concerned about the placement of the booth for those reasons.

“I’ll see if we can be somewhere where we will feel really safe,” she said. “Kevin warned of rumblings in the community, like, ‘What do those people know about gun safety?’ I think it’s important to be ready for everything.”

Hecht maintained that the coalition does not have a political agenda, and that lacking one does not hamper their efforts.

“We want to make this really appealing to people instead of creating more polarization and more division. That’s the opposite of what we’re trying to accomplish,” she said.

The Vashon Safety Coalition is still searching for volunteers to help at the festival booth, as well as for the expertise of more gun owners who could become involved. Those interested in participating may contact Hecht by email at Spring.hecht@gmail.com.

“The hope is, we’ll have a really successful time with this, and maybe we can have really good engagement with gun owners, and maybe we can find that common ground when it comes to gun safety,” she said.

This version correctly identifies Shride as the former vice president of the Vashon Sportsmen’s Club.

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