Margy Heldring and her dinner guests thought of their young grandchildren a few nights after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Dec. 14, 2012.
“The talk turned to the shooting and our shock,” she said. “We knew immediately we had to act. This was not the kind of world we wanted to leave behind.”
A retired psychologist who lives on Maury Island, Heldring and her friends organized the first meeting of Grandmothers Against Gun Violence, a grassroots organization that today boasts nearly 900 members belonging to chapters in multiple American cities. Together they advocate for the closing of gun sale loopholes, universal background checks for the purchase of a firearm, safe gun storage and the banning of assault-style weapons. The group has delivered thousands of letters to lawmakers, lobbied mayoral and Senate candidates and demonstrated for increased legislative action to curtail gun violence.
Most recently, members of the group were among protesters last month in downtown Seattle for the March for Our Lives, calling for legislation that would end school shootings and other gun violence.
“There often comes a tipping point, and for reasons I think are elusive, Parkland has been a tipping point,” said Heldring, referring to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida in February that claimed the lives of 17 people.
Heldring believes that the national conversation surrounding gun rights, prominently led this year by survivors of the Parkland shooting, has enormous political clout. She hopes this may strongly influence both those aspiring for office in 2018 and the voters who will elect them, particularly those who may just be coming of age.
“The student response to that tragedy has laid down a new marker for the gun violence prevention movement,” she said. “These students are extraordinary, not only their capabilities, but they have inspired a lot of people.”
But Heldring isn’t encouraged by resistance in the latest state Senate session to pass legislation she argues is paramount to ending gun violence.
Substitute Senate Bill 6620 proposed improvements to school security by adding more resource officers, enhanced background checks that would have mandated firearm training, and raised the minimum age for purchasing a semi-automatic style weapon, but it never made it to the floor for a vote.
“While the Washington state Legislature did more than they ever have, they faltered at the finish line,” she said.
The Senate did pass a bill prohibiting the sale and use of bump stocks, devices that can dramatically increase the firepower of certain guns, which Gov. Jay Inslee signed on March 6. He also recently signed a new law that will allow individuals who consider themselves to be at periodic risk of suicidal thoughts to voluntarily waive their rights to purchase a gun.
Additionally, a charge of harassment, which is considered a misdemeanor under Washington law, was expanded in order to compliment existing domestic abuse protections, meaning anyone charged cannot legally obtain or possess a gun. Proponents say this will further protect victims of domestic violence.
Heldring said she was inspired by the young people who led the Seattle march and by the multi-generational crowd behind them, both figuratively and literally, all demanding change.
“The mobilization of not only young people, but all people, has been extraordinary. People have just said, ‘I am not going to watch this again,’” said Heldring. “Hopefully we don’t have to ever watch this again. People are saying, ‘I’m not going to watch this as a passive observer.’ And so, that is very encouraging and very heartening.”
While the political climate on Vashon leans left, gun control remains a complicated subject, and not all islanders feel the same about legislation. Among them is Brad Shride, a licensed gun dealer and Vashon native who believes that the ire towards gun owners is misdirected.
“First of all, I believe in the First Amendment, so I believe in these people who are walking and protesting,” he said. “But I’m also a strong believer in the Second Amendment.”
Shride is a membership recruiter for the National Rifle Association and certified firearm training instructor in several states. He said that his business has gone up slightly in the wake of recent demonstrations and that he is receiving many phone calls from people asking about the state of firearms sales, wondering if perhaps now is the time to buy.
The interest has led Shride to organize an upcoming semi-intensive class through his gun shop for all levels seeking general firearm knowledge and current information. The full day instruction will walk through the process of owning a firearm, from choosing one for purchase that is most suitable for the owner, to safely storing it, reviewing the safety features, how to transport a gun, interactions with police when carrying, reason for exercising deadly force and how to properly handle a firearm.
“I’m going to teach this class, and its going to include suicide prevention and when and where you can’t carry,” he said. “Buying the firearm is the easy part. Knowing when, where and how, and state laws, is the tough part.”
At the root of Shride’s class, called Washington State Safety Rights and Responsibilities, is prevention. He is working with advocates for suicide prevention who hope to inform the decisions and motivations behind gun ownership to potentially save lives. Last week, Shride had just come in from collecting his mail, and among his letters were prevention-related materials from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a major association for firearm recreation. He was a mentor of Vashon teenager Palmer Burke, who died by suicide in 2012, and said that it’s more than his reputation at stake when he considers making a sale.
“Who wants to be the one who sold a gun to so-and-so who killed himself? I’ve been accused of that before,” he said.
Shride added that he often relies on a gut feeling when turning potential customers away. On one occasion, he received an anonymous phone call from a concerned citizen warning him that an individual coming in to purchase a gun shouldn’t own one.
“There’s been a few that I’ve said, ‘I’m not going to sell you a gun, I think that you need to go to another location and get a gun from them.’”
In the arena of the gun rights debate, little common ground has been forged, but Heldring says there is cause for conciliation.
“We have all kinds of attention, properly so, on events like Parkland and the Las Vegas mass shooting. But in the shadows is suicide,” she said.
Among those who receive gun training, only 15 percent indicate that their training included any information on suicide prevention, according to Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, associate professor of the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Washington, in an email.
“What we do know is that about 40 percent of gun owners and 85 percent of non-owners living in a gun-owning household have never received formal training in firearm safety,” he said.
Data further shows that the presence of an unsecured gun in the home greatly increases the significant likelihood of suicide or death of any member in the household.
“We have opportunities to reduce the risk of suicide while respecting the right of individuals to own a gun in their home by strategies such as safe firearm storage or temporary firearm removal in times of crisis,” said Rohani-Rahbar.
Since passage of the 1996 Dickey Amendment, funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not been made available for gun violence research, as it was thought it may be used to promote gun control. Last year, the Grandmothers Against Gun Violence saw an opportunity and contributed an unprecedented $10,000 to continue Rowhani-Rahbar’s research into gun violence prevention at the university.
“It is quite unique to receive a generous gift such as this from a grassroots organization specifically for the purpose of research,” he said. “Federal funding for gun violence research has been extremely limited over the past 20 years, and only a few private foundations have ever supported this type of work. Therefore, gifts like this can keep this line of research alive and catalyze efforts to reduce the heavy burden of gun violence in our community.”
The group’s donation is more relevant than ever, as President Donald Trump recently signed a spending bill that grants the CDC authority to lead research into gun violence, though the bill stopped short of allocating funds to support any study.
“While it is something of a step in the right direction — it’s better than not having lifted that ban — there’s no meat to those bones. We cannot sit around and say, ‘Oh great, yay for research,’” said Heldring.
Shride is also open to the possibilities that greater research may offer, as both sides of the political divide propose solutions but remain largely at odds both nationally and locally.
“I believe that that is a step in the right direction as far as recognizing possible problems,” said Shride. “I’m trying to educate myself. I’m trying to come up with ideas in my head of how things can help.”
This version states that Shride received mail from the NSSF, not former islander Kathleen Gilligan.