The warm glow of candlelight will fill the Flagstaff City Hall lawn this evening.
The event, which was organized by various Flagstaff citizens, faith leaders and civic groups, is part of the Newtown Foundation’s third annual nationwide vigil to honor victims of gun violence, including the 20 children and six adults slaughtered by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 14, 2012.
The gun violence vigil runs from 5 to 6:30 p.m. and has a broad scope. In addition to remembering victims of mass shootings like the Newtown massacre, the organizers have broached subjects such as firearm safety, accidental shootings and gun violence survivors.
“What we hope to accomplish is just getting together and talking about what we can do,” said Flagstaff resident Sue Strobel, who has helped organize the gun violence vigil the past two years. “And, really, what we can do is talk to our neighbors, especially those with young children, who are gun owners and perhaps not being as conscientious as they should be.”
This year’s vigil falls at a time when local concerns about gun violence are running high thanks, in part, to two events: last week’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. and the Oct. 9 shooting in a Northern Arizona University parking lot that left one student dead.
“When we lost our student at NAU, it just felt like the awareness and the shock of it doubled and tripled,” Strobel said.
According to Gun Violence Archive, an online organization that aggregates police, media and other sources to compile raw statistics on gun violence, there have been 594 mass shootings – defined as at least four people shot but not necessarily killed at the same general time and location, not including the shooter – in the past two years.
Flagstaff resident Brian Lee Wilson is an award-winning competition shooter who took up the sport about 10 years ago after moving to Arizona. He said no matter where a person comes down on the gun control debate, pretty much everyone believes mass shootings are tragic and unacceptable.
“I’m a husband and a parent,” he said. “You read about something like the Newtown, Conn. (shooting) and there’s not a single parent in this country, regardless of their feelings about firearms, that would not be devastated. It brings tears to your eyes just thinking about another parent that would suffer that kind of loss.”
But advocating for public policy to prevent those kinds of violent acts, he said, is a difficult task.
The San Bernardino shooting, in particular, has led to a congressional showdown this week over whether the federal government should ban gun sales to individuals on terrorism watch lists. U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, has expressed support for the measure, as well as efforts to strengthen background checks. She is also is co-sponsoring legislation that would authorize grants to improve the criminal history record system and establish a U.S. House committee to investigate causes of mass shootings, ways to improve the background check system and other issues.
"Gun violence has hurt far too many communities, including Flagstaff,” Kirkpatrick said in an email. “Like many folks in Arizona, I'm a gun owner – my dad taught me to hunt when I was growing up in the White Mountains. But I've listened to and agree with many of my fellow Arizonans, including other gun owners, who support taking sensible steps to protect our communities.”
Strobel has created a loose local organization called Citizens Against Gun Violence to bring people in Flagstaff together to talk about gun laws, learn about changes to the laws and contact lawmakers.
“When I was kind of walking around with my clipboard talking about (gun violence), people would kind of faze over because it’s such a horrific topic and you do want to block it out,” she said. “But now it’s a little different. I think we have a little momentum because it’s in the news all the time, not just the shootings themselves but talking about it and that’s what we need.”
She would like not only expanded background checks but licensing and liability insurance requirements for gun owners. Plus, she would like to see some consistent standards from state to state.
On the other end of the political spectrum is state Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, who, in March, proposed a measure aimed at preventing future legislatures or voters from having the power to mandate background checks for private gun sales. From Thorpe’s perspective, no law is going to prevent the type of mass shootings that happened in San Bernadino or the November attack that killed 130 people in Paris.
“I don’t know of any laws that would have prevented these terrorists from showing up and doing what they did,” he said.
Thorpe pointed out that Paris does not allow people to own guns without permission from the government and California has stiff laws on purchasing and carrying of guns. The San Bernardino attackers, for instance, were already violating a California law that prohibits carrying a loaded weapon in the trunk of a car.
“How can I pass a law that a person like that would adhere to it?” he asked.
Wilson shares Thorpe’s concern. As a tracker of gun violence statistics, he has come to the conclusion that proposals like expanded background checks and banning certain classes of weapons are not an instant panacea. He takes issue with the notion that “this just doesn’t happen in other countries.”
In fact, researchers Jaclyn Schildkraut of State University of New York at Oswego and H. Jaymi Elsass of Texas State University have published data showing that although the United States far outpaced the number of mass shootings and mass shooting deaths in most developed countries between 2000 and 2014, at least some of the disparity can be tied to the sheer size of the U.S. population. Norway, which has stricter gun laws than the United States, had the highest mass shooting fatality rate per 100,000 people even though the country had only one mass shooting during that period. It was more than eight times higher than the U.S. mass shooting fatality rate per 100,000 people.
Despite high-profile incidents like the mass killing in San Bernadino, Calif., the homicide rate is actually on the decline in the United States. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports data, 11,961 people were murdered in this country in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available. In 2010, there were 13,164 murders nationwide.
Guns remain the weapon of choice for murderers in the United States. According to the FBI data, 8,124 – roughly 68 percent of all U.S. murders in 2014 – were committed by firearms. Arizona contributed 153 victims to that total. Most of those deaths did not happen during mass shootings. In fact, the most common circumstances for gun-related killings were ordinary arguments that turned violent, and the bulk of victims knew their attackers.
Phillip Scavo is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and NAU graduate who has owned Flagstaff’s 2nd Amendment Store for four years. In addition to selling firearms, the store offers a lot of training programs, including gun safety classes, National Rifle Association instruction and concealed carry weapons courses.
“I do firmly believe in the Second Amendment,” Scavo said. “I think it’s everybody’s right to own a gun and be able to protect themselves. The amazing thing is, there’s always two far sides arguing the topic when the reality is, the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding people that want to do training, want to be informed, they go through the background check system.”
Although he opposes many of the gun control proposals that have been discussed by various politicians in light of the recent mass shootings, he does want to stop gun violence.
“It’s not that I don’t think that we need to do something, it’s just that I think blaming guns is the easy thing,” he said. “Why do we have so many people in this country that feel that they need to act out that way in the first place? I think we all as people have known somebody who was mentally ill or came across a hard time in their life. If we can help those people before they’re pushed to a point where they do something violent because they have no way out, then we can start making change.”
For those who already own guns, he said, basic firearms, concealed carry weapons and gun safety courses can go a long way to making a responsible and safe gun owner.
The desire to prevent gun deaths is the common ground for the two sides of the gun control debate in Flagstaff.
“Most people are against gun violence,” Strobel said. “We’re not talking about ownership or any of that, but ‘against gun violence’ implies accountability and responsibility. The new conflict resolution should not be pulling out a gun in your argument.”