Six years ago, I was called on to do something - anything - to protect an unstable young man and those around him from harming himself or others. I was serving as a prosecutor for King County, processing the in-custody calendar early on a Saturday morning. Because the Constitution prohibits the government from holding anyone for longer than 48 hours without a finding of probable cause that a crime was committed, I was there to make the case to either set bail or release each of the accused awaiting processing.
There is one bail hearing out of the hundreds I conducted in my time as a prosecutor that I will never forget. That Saturday morning, I reviewed the file of a young man that was taken into custody for a domestic dispute. He was 18. He had threatened to harm his parents and siblings and was arrested because the officer at the scene felt he may be a danger to his family if left in the home. Without evidence that he committed a specific crime, however, I was powerless to do anything but recommend his release.
As he was called up next in the courtroom inside the jail, I prepared to not contest his release. Then I heard a frantic tapping on the bulletproof glass behind me. It was the young man’s mother. The look of sheer panic in her eyes was startling. Her son suffered from severe mental illness. He had access to weapons. She and her husband felt that if we did not keep him in custody, he would harm himself, someone else, or his family. She plead with the Court to keep him in jail until they could get him treatment. I knew the Court had no choice but to release him. When that reality sunk in, the family frantically looked to me begging for me to do something.
This was a moment for compassion. A crisis that demanded emergency mental health intervention, and a collaboration of advocates and law enforcement to temporarily remove his weapons from the home until he got the treatment he needed. This family needed a social worker to navigate the system, a counselor, and a police officer to take custody of the young man’s firearms. Instead, all they had was a prosecutor who didn’t have the tools to keep their son in jail despite the crisis. I failed them that day. The law failed them, and he was let out of custody.
As we’ve all learned more about the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida the feelings of despair and sadness in the immediate aftermath of the shooting have turned to frustration and anger. The warning signs were there. The system failed again. Congress took no action to address the epidemic of gun violence in America. Instead, brilliant students like Emma Gonzalez and her classmates must bare their grief on national television for us to focus on the daily, national crisis of gun violence because of another mass shooting I know we could have prevented.
We tell members of our community that if they see something, they must say something. The slogan is premised on the basic fact that those in a position of power could act when alerted to the warning signs like those reported by the family and friends of the Parkland shooter. Just like those reported to me. I was in a position to act that Saturday morning, but there was nothing I could do, until now.
In Washington state, we have already started making changes to empower those who can step in and prevent potential tragedies and stop preventable deaths. Just last year, voters in our state enacted the Extreme Risk Protection Order, which permits families and law enforcement officers to petition a court to temporarily suspend someone’s access to firearms if an individual poses a serious threat to themselves or others. King County now has the first dedicated crisis response team in the nation tasked with implementing extreme risk protection orders and removing guns from dangerous hands before it is too late.
High school students in Florida have created a moment in time where the entire country is focused on doing something to ensure our nation’s children are free from gun violence in their classrooms. Let’s channel their activism into demanding common-sense solutions that provide the safety our community deserves.
In addition to universal background checks for all firearm sales and mandatory waiting periods, Congress should enact a national extreme risk protective order program to empower law enforcement, advocates, and prosecutors to take proactive measures to remove guns from dangerous hands. Congress should provide funding so that every county in America can offer this innovative and collaborative approach to combatting gun violence before it’s too late.
We need the support of my fellow gun owners to begin transforming our culture around guns. Today, 90 more Americans will die as a result of gun violence. For every day of inaction, our law makers bear part of the blame for preventable gun deaths. We don’t have time for partisan politics. When the stakes are this high, and children around the country demonstrate such bravery in speaking out and demanding action, surely Congress can pass a set of firearm safety regulations that an overwhelming majority of Americans, including gun owners, support.
It is time to break free from the tired old talking points that have failed us for decades. If we’re going to solve the epidemic of gun violence in America, let us do it now. It is time for a new generation of leaders who have the moral courage to stand up for what is right.
Jason Rittereiser, a former Deputy King County Prosecutor, is a Democratic candidate running for Congress in the 8th Congressional District.