I went to the Democratic caucus near my home today, where I had promised to get signatures for a statewide ballot initiative. The initiative will set up a process where a family or law enforcement can keep guns away from people threatening violence against themselves or others. This is called an “Extreme Risk Protection Order.”*
I have worked in public health most of my career. As a nurse, I am very clear about why prevention is so important to reduce avoidable deaths. This goes for gun deaths, car deaths, SIDS deaths, disease deaths. We can prevent these things. We have to try.
For thirty-five years it has been my job to try.
I thought I was prepared to ask people to sign this petition, although I was a little nervous. I had never been one of those “petition people” you see on street corners, in the ferry lot, at the farmer’s market – holding out their clipboard, and asking you to sign as a voter to get something on the ballot. Begging people to sign on to a cause isn’t really my style. But prevention is. And preventing a homicidal man from murdering his family – and then himself – seemed like a worthy enough cause. So I ignored my introvert-self’s pleas and approached people.
I WAS prepared for the ones who said, “absolutely not…” and turned away. I was prepared for those who said, “I’ll look it up online.” I was fine with those who heard the gist, and interrupted me mid-sentence to say, “I’m not signing anything like that.”
But I was not prepared for the signers.
Here is a sample of comments from people who took the clipboard and pen without a second thought:
“Hell, yes, I’ll sign this. My ex held a gun to my son’s head when I said I wanted a divorce. We had a protection order – what good is that when he’s pointing a rifle at your four-year-old?”
“I’m in a permanent ‘witness protection program’ so I can’t be found.” (When I asked her if she was safe now, she said, “I came all the way to Whidbey Island to be safe. He can’t find me here.”) I hope she is right.
“Isn’t this in place now? Why is it taking so long?”
“I’m a paramedic. We have to respond to these things…” (I said, “You guys see so much…” He said, “Too much. Too often.”)
“I’m gay, and I’m a victim of domestic violence… It isn’t just straight people who have to worry.”
“Just give me the pen.”
“I’m an emergency medicine doc. Guns keep us in business, but we’d like to have a lot less business. Thanks for being out here.”
One woman looked over the summary, looked directly into my eyes, shut her eyes for a moment, looked at me again, and took the pen out of my hand. She felt all the implications in her body. No words necessary.
“I’m a nurse, and I work psych. You have no idea how important this is.”
“I lived in a town where a four-year-old shot his father. I know this isn’t the same, but I want to sign it anyway.”
“I’m a mental health counselor. It’s my job to interview these people. We need this.”
“My son got a handgun when he turned eighteen. He shot himself near our home. His six-year-old brother found him.”
“My sister was killed and we knew he was dangerous. I’ll sign.”
I found myself saying, “Oh, I can’t imagine.”
Or lightly touching an elbow and nodding.
Or agreeing, “The families know, don’t they?”
These are my neighbors.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t really get that many signatures. I was so busy listening…
But I did get a lot of reasons to keep trying.
* Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPO) allow families and law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily suspend a person’s access to firearms if there is documented evidence that an individual is threatening harm to themselves or others by way of dangerous mental illness or a high risk of violent behavior.