Comment: I lost my niece to gun violence 10 years ago this week

Since then, Washington state voters and lawmakers have taken bold steps to discourage gun violence.

The author’s 19-year-old niece, Veronika, was among seven people killed by a gunman on May 23, 2014, in Isla Vista, Calif.

The author’s 19-year-old niece, Veronika, was among seven people killed by a gunman on May 23, 2014, in Isla Vista, Calif.

By Jane Weiss / For The Herald

Ten years ago, on an early holiday weekend morning, I received a phone call I will never forget.

The caller told me to sit down and then delivered the devastating news that Veronika, my 19-year-old niece, had been tragically taken from us. She was shot and killed while walking with friends to her sorority house the previous evening in the small college town of Isla Vista, Calif. The mass shooting claimed the lives of seven individuals, including the perpetrator, and left 14 others wounded.

I remember some of what happened that Saturday, including the barrage of phone calls, the sudden coordination of lesson plans, and the frantic arrangements to transport four adults and two 17-month-olds to California. Amidst it all, there was an overwhelming sense of sadness, shock, and horror; a blur of emotions that seemed to engulf everything.

As the details of the tragedy unfolded, we began to piece together more about the shooter: his ties to misogyny, his disturbing manifestos, and the alarming ease with which he acquired multiple firearms and ammunition. It became painfully clear that law enforcement lacked the necessary tools to intervene to save lives when someone posed a clear danger to themselves and others.

Since that day, the toll of gun violence has only continued to increase across the United States. A rough estimate suggests that nearly 450,000 Americans have lost their lives to firearms since that fateful day. It’s a staggering figure that underscores the urgent need for comprehensive action to address this epidemic.

Upon my return to Washington state after Veronika’s memorial, I felt different. I realized that significant changes were necessary to ensure that no other family would endure the trauma that mine had experienced and continues to endure.

When I learned that Washington state was pushing for universal background checks for firearm purchases, I joined the cause, refusing to wait for others to act. The Alliance for Gun Responsibility, a new organization formed after the Sandy Hook shooting, led the charge for change. Despite legislative inertia, Washingtonians overwhelmingly passed initiatives I-594 and I-1491 in 2014 and 2016. In response to the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Initiative I-1693 was introduced. This initiative mandated an age limit of 21 years to purchase semi-automatic firearms, implemented waiting periods, required mandatory training and incentivized safe firearm storage. These measures received strong public support and have made our state safer.

Since 2019, our Legislature has also passed more than 50 bills, including bans on ghost guns and assault weapons, restrictions on high-capacity magazines, prohibiting open carry in public places, increasing access to justice for victims of gun violence, and establishing the Washington Office of Firearm Violence Prevention. However, there is still more to do. Keeping guns out of the wrong hands and supporting communities most affected by gun violence will make our communities safer.

A recent article in The Seattle Times reported that since new laws took effect this year, there were just over 22,000 background checks for gun sales in the state as of March 2024. This marks a more than 70 percent decrease from the over 77,000 checks conducted in March 2023.

This significant reduction is because Washington is setting the standard for evidence-based gun violence prevention policies and advocating for direct solutions to ending gun violence. Across the nation, we are envied by states seeking to reduce gun violence. Our ultimate success lies with the residents of Washington; passionate students, elected leaders, gun violence survivors and numerous advocacy groups, including the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, Everytown for Gun Safety, Grandmothers Against Gun Violence, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Brady, Team Enough, Washington Ceasefire, and you, the voting citizens who want to live in communities that are safe and free from gun violence.

As I reflect on the past ten years, I wonder where Veronika might be today. Her potential seemed boundless as she embarked on her path into adulthood, brimming with hope and joy. I know she would be proud of our milestone in Washington, and I look forward to continuing this work in her legacy.

I encourage you to take a moment today, in remembrance of Veronika and countless others, to delve deeper into the issue of gun violence. You can explore various advocacy groups or visit WearOrange.org to learn how to get involved June 7, 8 and 9 to honor survivors and help raise awareness to end gun violence.

Jane Weiss is a retired elementary school teacher from Snohomish County, a Senior Survivor Fellow at Everytown for Gun Safety, and a board member at the Alliance for Gun Responsibility.

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