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Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Rep. Mike Thompson team up to take on gun violence

Like a lot of productive ideas, this one was born of sweat.

As three Wine Country cycling buddies rode past the historic Veterans Home in Yountville in 2018, they were struck by the magnitude of what had recently occurred there: two Pathway Home directors and a pregnant psychologist shot to death by a former soldier with PTSD, who then killed himself. That incident came just 23 days after a gunman had opened fire at Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, murdering 17 people, most of them students.

The cyclists — Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena; Napa County Sheriff John Robertson, and marketing professional Rebecca Kotch — resolved to turn their anguish into action.

“It was on all our minds,” Thompson reflected. “I said, ‘We should do something to commemorate these lives and raise awareness. How about a bike ride?’ The sheriff spoke up and said we should do burritos and bubbles after. For the next 10-15 miles, we talked about particulars of what we wanted do, and how to do it.”

Now they’re gearing up for the fourth annual Rock the Ride event this Saturday. It’s still constructed around cycling, burritos, sparkling wine and, underpinning everything, a push to talk about the 21,115 American lives that had been claimed by guns violence in 2021, as of Tuesday. The figure, compiled by the Gun Violence Archive, includes homicides, suicides and accidental shootings.

The highlight of Rock the Ride this year will be an online noon conversation between Thompson and Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, a pair of outspoken gun safety advocates.

Kerr’s interest is deeply personal. His father, Malcolm H. Kerr, was president of the American University of Beirut in 1984 when he was shot dead by gunmen in the hallway outside his office.

Since becoming Warriors coach in 2014, Steve Kerr has gradually but constantly amplified his voice on the topic. He frequently engages media after mass shootings, and has taken part in numerous gun-related roundtables and interviews. On March 23, after new, deadly mass shootings in Boulder, Colorado, and Atlanta, he appeared in a video and spoke of “the most disgusting thing that exists in our country” as the names of 18 combined victims appeared behind him.

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, left, speaks to Newark Memorial High School students on Monday, March 12, 2018, in Newark, Calif. Kerr joined Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., seated at right, and Matt Deitsch, 20, wearing 'Stop Gun Violence' shirt, in a town hall style conversation on gun violence in America. Deitsch's younger brother and sister stayed locked in closets during last month's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, left, speaks to Newark Memorial High School students on Monday, March 12, 2018, in Newark, Calif. Kerr joined Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., seated at right, and Matt Deitsch, 20, wearing 'Stop Gun Violence' shirt, in a town hall style conversation on gun violence in America. Deitsch's younger brother and sister stayed locked in closets during last month's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Kerr has a willing political partner in Thompson, chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. Thompson, a Vietnam War combat veteran, is a hunter and gun owner who for years has sought what he sees as sensible limits on the sales, movements and power of firearms.

Lately, much of Thompson’s effort has focused on H.R. 8, the House Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019. The bill, which he first introduced in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, would extend mandatory checks to all firearms transfers, including gun shows and personal transactions, though it contains a number of exemptions. The House of Representatives passed H.R. 8 on March 11, but it faces a predictably bruising fight in the U.S. Senate.

Thompson has been working closely with Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, to build a coalition. Murphy thought he was making progress with Sen. John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, until late last week when “Cornyn flaked out,” as Thompson put it. Now Murphy is talking to another Republican senator, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Graham is open to expanding background checks, Thompson said, but only for gun shows.

“That was my first bill, to close the gun show loophole,” Thompson said. “I’m all for closing it. I don’t think it’s all we need to do. But if that’s all we can get from Senate Republicans, I’m happy to get that. I just want to make sure (Graham) doesn’t flake out, too.”

Saturday’s conversation, streamable via a link on the RocktheRideNapa.com site, will be moderated by Dr. Mark Shapiro, a Santa Rosa native, hospitalist at Santa Rosa Memorial and, for more than six years now, host of Explore the Space, a podcast that examines the interface between health care and society.

Shapiro was introduced to gun culture during his medical studies in Houston. He saw the family traditions that seemed like harmless fun, but also the huge numbers of hospital admissions related to firearms.

“There’s no question gun violence is a health problem in the U.S.,” Shapiro said. “And we need to see it that way. The goal is to protect human life.”

Rock the Ride was an in-person event for two years, structured around optional cycling and walking routes in Napa Valley. In 2020, it went virtual. This year, Kotch and her fellow organizers debated going live. There just wasn’t enough certainty as they were formalizing plans, so it’s remote again.

The scaled-down fundraiser is expected to bring in about $25,000, Kotch said, to be distributed among nonprofits Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action, Giffords Law Center and the Alaina’s Voice Foundation. To date, Rock the Ride has raised about $125,000 for gun safety organizations.

Alaina’s Voice honors Alaina Housley, the Napa native who was shot to death while dancing at a Thousand Oaks bar in 2018, an incident that claimed 13 lives. Kotch does marketing for the soccer team started by Alaina’s dad, Arik Housley. Kotch also knew Pathway Home executive director Christine Loeber, one of the three victims at the Yountville vets home shooting.

And Kotch grew up in Newtown, Connecticut. It was the murder of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School there, including 20 first- and second-graders, that led to the creation of the House task force Thompson chairs.

So it’s a personal cause for Kotch, too.

As is cycling. She used to race when she lived in Southern California, and still spends many hours on the seat. Thompson does, too, despite his busy workload. He bought a gravel bike to pedal around D.C., allowing easy transition between streets and trails. He has put together weekend rides with House and Senate members, cabinet secretaries and Washington media members.

Thompson will be on the bike Saturday morning, getting his blood flowing for his conversation with Kerr and Shapiro. And he’ll be wearing his orange socks, as he has most every day for the past two years.

Rep. Mike Thompson and Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos (standing) show off the orange socks they wear to signal their commitment to reducing gun violence. Thompson says he wears them to work every day. (Mike Thompson)
Rep. Mike Thompson and Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos (standing) show off the orange socks they wear to signal their commitment to reducing gun violence. Thompson says he wears them to work every day. (Mike Thompson)

That tradition started at Rock the Ride two years ago, when Thompson “foolishly” suggested he should wear orange socks — the color adopted by gun violence prevention advocates — every day until the president signs his House bill into law. Now he’s the orange-sock guy.

“I was wearing them on the House floor (Wednesday),” Thompson said. “Rep. Cheri Bustos from Illinois came up, put her foot on the floor in front of me and unzipped her boot. She was wearing them, too.”

When orange socks in Congress become as commonplace as mass shootings, Thompson figures, we’ll be in a pretty good place.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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