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Between gun tragedies, Garfield students discuss gun violence prevention

North entrance of Garfield High School in Seattle picture January 24, 2009.
Joe Mabel
CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
North entrance of Garfield High School in Seattle picture January 24, 2009.

Gun violence has struck Garfield High School twice in less than three months. The first time, a student was wounded in a drive-by shooting while waiting for a bus in March. Last week, Garfield football player Amarr Murphy-Paine, 17, was shot dead in the parking lot during lunch after reportedly breaking up a fight. Classes resumed on Wednesday.

In between tragedies, some Garfield freshmen got to talking in health class about preventing gun violence with Seattle epidemiologist Gregory Engel. The doctor has shared his public health expertise with more than 7,000 students and counting across the region, and afterward, Engel always asks them to come up with solutions of their own.

In the students’ conversations about preventing violence, Engel said they had four public health buckets to draw ideas from: policy, research, technology and education. The dialogue among the students became a microcosm of the discussion about guns around the country.

"So my teammate said, like, restricting the purchase of guns, so you can't really buy any guns at all," one student said.

Engel responded, "Well, that would cut down on the number of new firearms, right?"

Another student chimed in, "That doesn't change the amount of firearms that are already in the country."

"And just increases the amount of illegal firearms purchased," a third student said.

The students’ ideas run the gamut, from cutting-edge smart guns with fingerprint scanners, to well-worn arguments about permits and processing times.

"Because if there’s a long process, then like if someone's thinking about doing something bad with the gun they have longer time to sit with themselves and like, think about it so that they might, like change their mind," one student said.

Mental health and grassroots organizing were also a part of the discussion. After the most recent shooting near Garfield, student activists called on city leaders to start spending $20 million in school mental health funding that was promised last year after a fatal shooting inside Ingraham High School.

One student said it's important to think about "awareness and behavior and like coming together like a community because most of gun violence is a lot of gangs." He added that people can keep themselves safe by recognizing "that people use guns as like anger, fear."

Engel’s visits to schools in Edmonds inspired teachers to develop a district-wide curriculum on guns that will debut next year. At the state level, lawmakers will be watching to see if that initiative could change things for more than a million other students.

Engel said said he’s drawing on decades of knowledge from past public health wins, like life-saving seatbelt campaigns, that sparked cultural change. He thinks his lectures have the potential to save lives, but it would take a massive, yearslong, multimillion-dollar study to prove it.

"I don't have time for that. I don't think we as a society have time to wait on what we already kind of know," Engel said. "People really need to have knowledge in order to fully realize their options to know what the risks and benefits of different behaviors are."

Jared Brown was a Poynter Media and Journalism Fellow based at KNKX covering the intersections of policing, courts and power with a focus on accountability and solutions.