EVERETT — Each time a fire alarm goes off, Anna Utley wonders if it’s a drill or if it’s a ploy by a mass shooter.
“I go to school wondering if we are going to be the next school on the news because of a school shooting,” said Utley, 16, a Mariner High School sophomore.
It’s a fear students have been staring down in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that has reignited a decades-long debate over school shootings and gun violence in the United States. Both sides of the argument were well represented Saturday in a crowd of 150 people who packed into the Mariner High School commons south of Everett, for a town hall hosted by U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen.
Utley and two other students, Eden Au Nguyen, 17, and Jessie Shull, 15, led off the forum. Nguyen, a senior at Marysville Getchell High School, said her community is still in mourning from a shooting that left five dead at Marysville Pilchuck High School in 2014.
“As a student who has seen how devastating gun violence is, first-hand, there is no one more qualified to talk about it than us,” Nguyen said. “The innocent people that we’ve lost to this epidemic should not have died in vain. Words can only do so much.”
Shull has a cousin at Challenger Elementary School in south Everett. Next door is an alternative high school where a senior enamored with the Columbine High School shooters bought a military-style rifle months ago, as he wrote detailed plans in his journal about how to kill as many classmates as possible, according to charging papers. That threat was thwarted when his grandma read the journal, found the rifle and called police.
Shull said it scared her. She’s tired of the feeling.
“I’m scared because I know there aren’t enough people standing up like they should be, because they’re scared,” she said. “They’re scared to speak up because they don’t want to be get shut down. They’re scared that their ideas won’t be heard. They’re just scared. We’re all scared.”
She suggested changes to the nation’s gun laws: a ban on high-capacity magazines; a waiting period for the purchase of ammunition; and a doctor’s approval for anyone wishing to buy a gun.
Once it was the adults’ turn to speak, the crowd stayed mostly civil but groaned at times at controversial views.
People posed questions to Larsen and a panel of four experts: a Snohomish County sheriff’s captain; a University of Washington public health professor; a legislative director for the state attorney general; and a representative from the local chapter of the NAACP.
Questions came from a full spectrum of gun-related topics, from gangs to mental illness to preventing violence in schools before it happens. Dr. Frederick Rivara, the professor, noted that 60 percent of gun-related deaths are suicides, and there’s far higher chance of killing oneself with a gun than any other method — and those facts often get lost in the discussion.
One woman asked Larsen where he stands on arming teachers. He’s opposed for a number of reasons, he said, but mainly because educators aren’t trained in a tactical environment like police.
“If we ought to be training our teachers anything, we ought to focus on the education of our students,” he said.
One man stood up and said he was a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association. He argued criminals don’t follow the law, so it made no sense to pass restrictions that would only impact law-abiding gun owners.
“Amen,” another man shouted.
“Why is it government’s job to tell me what I need for my self-protection?” the NRA member asked. “Whether it’s a 10-round magazine, a 20-round magazine, or a 500-round magazine, if I’m man enough to pick it up?”
Kerrin Donnelson’s son survived a shooting that killed three teenagers at a house party in Mukilteo in 2016. He hid, and called his parents in fear for his life. He is still dealing with the pain and post-traumatic stress, his mother said. Donnelson did not plan to speak up, but when others tried to steer the debate toward mental illness, and away from guns, she had to say something.
“Nobody needs to have an assault rifle that can kill many people … in seconds,” she said.
Many hands were still raised when Larsen ended the meeting just after the scheduled cutoff of 5:30 p.m. The congressman reminded people that a 90-minute town hall wouldn’t be the final word on guns in America. So he asked people to keep the conversation going.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; email@example.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.