Santa Rosa forum on gun violence focuses on legislation, action

Many who attended a forum with Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said they wanted to find out what is being done on a federal level to address gun violence and what they can do, personally.|

Yamile Gomez witnessed gun violence firsthand when she went to the Gilroy Garlic Festival in July and a shooter opened fire, killing three people.

“That is something I will never forget,” Gomez told a crowded room Friday afternoon. “We cannot move on and do nothing about it.”

Gomez, a Santa Rosa Junior College student who grew up in Roseland and a speaker for the nonprofit Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, shared her experience with more than a hundred people at a forum on gun violence Friday. The forum, which took place at the Flamingo Hotel, was organized by the World Affairs Council of Sonoma County and featured several speakers - including Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena - who urged audience members to stay informed and support children and teens affected by gun violence.

Many in the audience said they attended the forum to find out what is being done on a federal level to address gun violence and what they can do, personally. Thompson, who is the chairman of the House of Representatives’ Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, provided some answers. In February, the House passed a bill he spearheaded that would mandate universal background checks for all gun purchases. He started working on the bill in 2013, after 26 people were killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, but struggled to get support from representatives across the aisle.

He added that the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to approve several gun safety bills in the coming days, including one that would prohibit people connected to hate crimes from buying guns.

Several audience members pressured Thompson on his gun control legislation during a question and answer period, suggesting that banning assault weapons would be more effective to prevent gun violence. Most types of semiautomatic assault weapons were banned in a 1994 law passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, but the law expired in 2004 and efforts to reinstate it have not gained much traction.

But according to Thompson, assault weapons account for fewer than 2% of gun deaths. And if Congress is struggling to pass a bill on background checks, he said, it is unlikely to pass one that takes guns away from Americans.

“We’re in a precarious spot right now,” Thompson told the crowd, describing the mood in Washington. “What I do know is that background checks save lives.”

While Thompson focused on legislation that can prevent gun violence, another speaker at the forum outlined the emotional and academic consequences of gun violence on children.

Kelly Drane is a research manager at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a national policy organization that provides legal assistance to elected officials and activists to promote gun control. She called gun violence an “epidemic,” stating that 60% of children are very concerned about the possibility of gun violence happening in their schools. Often times, this fear can lead to “school phobia,” where children are too afraid to attend school and then fall behind, Drane said.

She said she has encountered children as young as 5 writing wills because they think they could be a victim of gun violence.

“Gun violence is taking an enormous toll on our children,” she said. “We owe it to our kids to do better. It’s our job to protect them, and we haven’t done that.”

Santa Rosa City Schools assistant superintendent Steve Mizera, who attended the forum, said Santa Rosa educators have known for a “long time” that students experience trauma in many ways, and have tried to address that.

“You can’t overestimate the effects (gun violence) has on students,” Mizera said. “It’s something we take very seriously.”

Despite slow change on a federal level, Drane said many states have made “tremendous” progress on gun control legislation. Since the shooting last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 people, 110 gun safety laws have been signed into law in 32 states and in Washington, D.C.

While the presentation was focused on the impact of gun violence on children and teens, there were few young adults in the audience. But Thompson said kids “get it” already.

“The kids are on this,” Thompson said. “(They) want something done.”

Drane echoed Thompson’s sentiments, adding that a lot of children are upset because they feel as though their leaders are not doing enough to make them safe. She said many children she spoke with in the U.S. were frustrated that Congress has done little to pass gun control laws, while New Zealand leaders passed legislation soon after the Christchurch shootings killed 51 people in March.

Santa Rosa Junior College freshman Jennifer Fernandez, who attended the event and is part of the Brady Campaign, said she hoped people in the audience understood there are ways to get involved and help prevent or address gun violence. She added that she learned a lot from the presentation, and was shocked that children as young as elementary school kids are aware of the threat of gun violence.

“I don’t want people to grow up in fear,” Fernandez said. “No one should be worried about guns.”

You can reach Staff Writer Chantelle Lee at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter @ChantelleHLee.

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