As part of the "Civility Roundtable" series organized by the city's human relations commission, over 50 people came to discuss the issue at the Senior Center on May 30 after hearing a debate and discussion among key community members: Mountain View gun store owner Gary Kolander, Max Bosel of the police department, Superintendent Craig Goldman of the Mountain View Whisman School District, psychologist Stewart Kiritz of the Community Health Awareness Council and longtime resident and parent Don Bahl.
Moderator Chris Block said he hoped not have "the same people in the same rooms, having the same conversations, expecting something different to happen," but to have "different people in different kinds of conversations in different ways so that different things can happen."
The event was titled "Could Sandy Hook happen here?" referring to the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn. that killed 26. Much of the discussion centered around how to make schools safe and how to keep guns out of the hands of those who would harm others. The goal was to have a real discussion about a divisive issue — an issue that drives some people "crazy," as some participants said.
A shooting spree can happen anywhere at any time, said Kolander, owner of Mountain View's Gun Vault. "From what I understand, the man in question (in the Sandy Hook shooting) was mentally unstable and his mother was trying to have him committed. If criminals and unstable people can't have access to them, that's part of the problem solved."
Kiritiz, a psychologist, noted that it would be much easier to make schools safer than to "than trying to find every mentally ill person," adding that some people would be discouraged from ever seeking treatment if anyone with a mental disorder was disqualified from owning guns.
Several participants said they felt the city's schools were safe, including Superintendent Goldman, who said he was hesitant to even attend the event because it "might be perceived that we have a problem, and we don't."
"Guns are really a non-issue in our district," Goldman said, though students occasionally bring knives to school, and one occasion, a girl found her father's bullets and brought some to school.
Co-organizer Greg Coladonato said several recent scares prompted the event. In January there was a lock-down in a Sunnyvale school when a student reported seeing a gunman. And then there was a letter sent to parents of students in an after school program on the Stevenson elementary school campus about a threat which turned out not to be "credible" Coladonato said — "but we were all on edge."
There was also a scare on Valentines Day at Mountain View High School when a student wore a gas mask and camouflage in response to the school's "love is in the air" theme on Valentine's Day, which brought police officers rushing in.
"He thought it was a pretty good joke," Coladonato said of the student. "Some people never got it."
While school shootings don't happen commonly it is a reality we have to recognize and prepare for, said police captain Bosel. The police department trains for such events, he said.
When the audience broke into small discussion groups, one group concluded that school campuses should be closed and key card locks placed on doors to prevent another killing spree.
It turns out that door locks for schools is not a simple issue.
"Many months after Sandy Hook and years after Columbine we still don't have state standards to ensure our schools are safe," Goldman said. "Dozens of bills have been proposed about what locks should look like on doors in schools — there's no agreement on how doors should be locked." The district would like to move forward on major facility efforts, but "we don't know what locks to buy."
Council member Mike Kasperzak questioned the need for closing campuses off when school is in session.
"Does closing campus send the right message for something that is a one-in-a-million chance?" Kasperzak asked. Kiritz said the odds were actually "one-in-a-13 million" chance.
While some gun rights advocates have called for arming teachers to prevent school shootings, no one advocated for that. Kolander did make the claim, however, that criminals target those who are least likely to be armed.
Gun control results?
Kolander claimed there was a "300 percent" rise in homicides in Australia when stricter gun laws were enacted. The widely circulated statistic refers to the effects of a 1997 gun buyback and is misleading, according to online fact-checking site snopes.com, which notes that the small number of homicides in Australia made the increase "statistically insignificant."
"States that have the highest gun control have the highest amount of crime," Kolander said. Kiritz said he's seen studies that claimed the opposite. In recent months two studies were widely reported which claimed that lax guns laws were linked to higher gun violence rates.
"I'm suspicious when I hear about statistics," said one woman in Kolander's breakout group.
During the initial discussion, Bahl said, "I believe we should be talking about all weapons," mentioning1970s serial killer Juan Corona, convicted of killing 25 migrant farmworkers with a machete, though Bahl described it as "mass murder."
"It's unusual you can kill that many people without an automatic rifle," Kiritiz said. "Why do the gun advocates resist any kind of regulations (on) high capacity assault rifles and magazines?"
"They have an agenda," Kolander said in response. "They want to remove guns from all law-abiding citizens' hands."
Kolander added that high-capacity magazines have been banned for years in California. He said he also supported the state's gun licensing regulations, which he said brings customers to him.
Bahl and Kolander also blamed elements of popular culture for glorifying guns and making them alluring.
As an Eagle Scout, "What I was taught was how to handle a weapon (and) to respect the weapon," Bahl said. "It was not titillating. There wasn't this big allurement. We all had guns, we didn't shoot one another. Owning a gun was not big thing."
Kolander also noted that kids get their ideas from movies, where guns are "glorified" and that their minds go on "auto-pilot" when repeatedly firing shots in video games. Kiritz said to parents of kids who play "single-shooter video games every day, please reduce the number of hours" the games are played.
To Goldman, the bottom line is simple. When students in Mountain View are asked if they feel safe, students say yes, he said.
"We always feel like our schools are safe, and they are," Goldman said. "We are not seeing kids bringing guns to school in our community."
Block commended the group for having the discussion, even though some participants had been hesitant to attend, organizers said.
"What you all just did was unfortunately rare," Block said. "One of the things I hope you leave with is a sense of gratitude."