Gun-control backers, foes rally in Esther Short Park

On opposing sides of issue, activists stick mainly to their own groups

By Lauren Dake, Columbian political writer

Published:

 

Karen Kasmer Hsue and her friend were about to head to the theater to see the 1986 movie "Pretty in Pink" when her girlfriend playfully pulled a shotgun off the wall, pointed it at her and pulled the trigger.

She survived the point-blank shot to the chest, but said it forever changed her.

Kasmer Hsue was part of a group of gun-control activists and community leaders who spoke at a rally Tuesday afternoon at Esther Short Park in Vancouver. Also in the park was a crew of open-carry supporters, most with handguns attached to their hip, to ensure their perspective on guns and gun laws also was represented.

Heidi Yewman, with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the rally had been scheduled before a teenager fatally shot a student and then killed himself at an Oregon high school last week. Yewman has organized similar rallies in Vancouver in the past, she said, but this was the first time that a dozen or so individuals set up a counter rally within earshot.

In addition to the two recent fatal school shootings — one at the high school in Oregon, the other at Seattle Pacific University — the gun debate has heightened with two state ballot measures slated for the November ballot. The first, Initiative 594, would expand background checks to include online and gun show purchases. The other, Initiative 591, would prohibit the state from passing any gun regulations beyond what the federal government has done.

Yewman said Tuesday's rally was intended to mark the start of the Asking Saves Kids or ASK campaign, which advocates that parents ask if there are firearms in the homes of their children's friends, and whether those weapons are secure. It was not, she said, meant to be a debate over the Second Amendment.

Although Yewman is part of a larger group that is pushing to expand background checks, she said Tuesday was meant to encourage the sometimes awkward conversation parents must have to find out if guns are present.

Yewman, who has two children, said when she first asked, it felt so personal, as if she were asking how much money the person made. It got easier, akin to telling the other parents her child had a peanut allergy and asking if they cooked with peanuts.

"There is only one way to know, by asking," she said. "There are no signs on the front door."

Olympia resident Bill Starks, with the group Washington Open Carry, said he caught wind of the ASK campaign and headed south. He said he has no problem with ensuring that guns are secure around children — he's a grandfather, after all — but "all these anti-gun groups are part of a bigger group wanting to do away with our rights."

A few members from each group interacted with the other, but for the most part the two groups stayed in their separate corners of the park.

Several elected officials spoke, including state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt. The mayor told a story of when he was in second grade and his best friend was accidentally shot in the face by a fellow second grader.

"I lost a best friend. Mark never had another birthday. Families were torn apart. It's a memory that I'll have for the rest of my life," Leavitt said.

And although most of the rhetoric between the two groups at the park was calm, Leavitt called the "brazen display of firearms on the hip" irresponsible behavior.

"It's an act of aggression and it's entirely unnecessary in a civilized society," he said.

Starks lamented the fact that children are now taught to "duck and run" in schools, instead of receiving gun-safety education. Whether he's at home watching television or at the grocery store, he said the gun attached to his hip gives him the ability to protect himself and others. For him, it's the ability to prevent another Sandy Hook from happening, he said.

Kasmer Hsue said there isn't a day that goes by that she doesn't live with the reality of having been shot in the chest as a teen.

"I cannot tell you how important it is to ask if there are guns in the homes where your children are playing," she said. "I wish so much this campaign had been in existence when I was a teenager, because I know my mother would have asked."