Seattle’s mayor is up in arms about guns

Share via
Murphy is a Times staff writer.

Seattle’s annual Northwest Folklife Festival is a throwback to the hippie days, a laid-back celebration of folk music, grilled salmon and sandals with socks in a city that has always considered laid-back a point of civic pride.

So when 19-year-old Joshua Penaluna felt a sharp pain in his wrist after two men came bursting toward him through the crowd at last May’s festival, he assumed he had merely broken a bone as he fell.

“Then I heard someone say, ‘Oh my god, he’s been shot,’ ” Penaluna recalled recently.

Penaluna’s girlfriend was also hit by the stray bullet and another person was injured. The shootings, in a city where sporadic but horrific incidents of violent street crime rattle its culture of progressive cool, sent Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels on a mission: banning guns on city property, including at parks, sporting events and street fairs. Next month, he will hold a public hearing on his executive order.


In a state where more than 239,000 residents have permits to carry concealed weapons -- and many consider a gun in their pocket a better deterrent to street crime than any law the mayor may think up -- the proposal appears almost certain to become a local gun control battle in a year when the courts and possibly the administration of President-elect Barack Obama are set to redefine the national debate.

After a Supreme Court ruling in June that the 2nd Amendment explicitly protects Americans’ right to own guns for self-defense, gun rights advocates are gearing up for a new round of court cases in California, Chicago and elsewhere. The cases will determine how far the justices’ decision striking down the District of Columbia’s handgun ban can be extended to state and local governments.

In Seattle, the battle will be over a Washington state law that specifically reserves the “entire field of firearms regulation” to the state. Last month, the state attorney general’s office issued an opinion that Nickels could not legally preempt state law with the handgun ban.

No matter. The mayor’s staff announced Friday that he was proceeding with a public hearing Dec. 15 to take testimony on the proposed administrative rule that would go into effect next spring, making anyone entering city property with a gun guilty of criminal trespassing.

“Our parks, our community centers and our public events are safer without guns,” Nickels said at a June news conference when he announced his executive order for the ban. “At many properties, including City Hall, you can bring a gun if you have a concealed-weapons permit. Under this order, people with concealed weapons will be asked to give up their weapon or leave.”

Nickels was joined at the news conference by Police Chief R. Gil Kerlikowske, who said in an October debate sponsored by the Rosenkranz Foundation in New York that laws like Washington’s, which require the issuance of concealed-weapons permits to anyone who meets the standards, are too lax.


In the case of the Folklife Festival shooting, he said, the young man whose gun went off during a scuffle had been issued a concealed-weapons permit even though he had been under drug addiction treatment with methadone and had “a number of other problems.”

“That is a person that should’ve never had a concealed-firearms permit,” Kerlikowske said. “There has to be far more than being mobile and not being blind as a reason to give someone a firearms permit.”

The backdrop to Seattle’s gun debate is the growing concern about crime, sometimes violent, in downtown Seattle. The downtown core’s edgier neighborhoods have been havens for drugs and prostitution, but lately upscale condos and restaurants are popping up as part of an attempt to fight sprawl and keep the city from rolling up the sidewalks when downtown workers head for the east side at 5 p.m.

Merchants and residents in neighborhoods like Belltown have been on a harangue against the police, complaining that street bums and their occasionally violent counterparts are making their community’s sidewalks a no-go zone after dark.

One Belltown woman became an Internet sensation this year by posting home videos shot from her apartment window depicting various scenes of drug-dealing, heroin-shooting and sex -- with whimsical titles like “Crackhead makes a pipe out of a can while wearing a sombrero.”

Nothing was to prepare the city, though, for what happened last month to 53-year-old Edward McMichael -- the offbeat merrymaker known as the “Tuba Man” who had long been a fixture outside sporting events across the city, playing his tuba in oversize Dr. Seuss or Uncle Sam hats.


McMichael was not far from where the Folklife Festival is held when he was set upon by five youths who the same night had been hitting up others for money and cellphones. As he lay on the ground in a fetal position, the youths kicked him and beat him, fatally injuring the Seattle man.

More than 1,000 people turned out at Qwest Field for a memorial service Nov. 12.

Although Seattle has problems with gang violence in the suburbs, and the papers have written exhaustively about some recent high-profile shootings elsewhere in the state, relatively little of the recent downtown crime has involved guns, which is one reason not many Belltown residents are lining up to support the mayor’s proposed gun ban.

In a column for the local online newspaper, Crosscut, veteran journalist Knute Berger argued that citizens who may have good reason to feel threatened in the city’s backcountry-like parks have every right to go there legally armed.

“I’ve been stalked. I know others who have been the victims of stalkers and involved in domestic violence situations that pose an ongoing threat,” Berger wrote.

“To ask citizens with the legal right to carry guns elsewhere to disarm themselves in circumstances where vigilance is often required and protection hard to come by is unfair, even dangerous.”

Gun rights advocates, who have pledged to sue immediately if Seattle proceeds with the ban, agree.


“It’s criminals who break laws, by nature of being criminals, and they’re not going to care if you pass a law saying you can’t have a gun on public property. It’s meaningless,” said Alan Gottlieb of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, which with the National Rifle Assn. is challenging gun bans in San Francisco and Chicago.

Those challenges are having a measure of success: Lawyers at the San Francisco Housing Authority said this week they were preparing to settle the case by revising their prohibition against all firearms in public housing to a ban on “unlawful possession of a firearm,” meaning tenants with gun permits could still keep a weapon at home.

Seattle officials said they would ask the Legislature next year to expand the state’s preemption law to make room for regulations like the one Nickels proposed.

Penaluna, for his part, doesn’t think a gun ban would have made him any more safe.

“I was hurt by a stupid person who happened to make a stupid decision with a gun,” he said.

“There are thousands of people all over Seattle, I know, who walk strapped. And they’re not gang-bangers. They’re responsible adults who are afraid of gang-bangers,” he said.

“I think this ordinance is nothing more than a classic governmental way of trying to put a Band-Aid over a problem instead of finding a solution.”



Stuart Glascock of The Times’ Seattle Bureau contributed to this report.