Jane Williams’ son, Mark, was shot dead in 1993 in Pennsylvania. Cheri Taylor’s son, Alex, was found not guilty by reason of insanity in 2008 for the shooting death of a Napa man a year earlier.
They were among 120 people from all faiths gathered Saturday at Congregation Beth Shalom of Napa Valley for a discussion on gun violence prevention. By chance, both mothers found themselves seated next to one another as attendees sat in groups of 10 to share ideas.
Napa’s interfaith clergy organized the gathering as a “call to conscience” as the national debate about gun violence continues. The religious leaders wanted a “thoughtful” conversation about how to prevent more shooting deaths, during which people would listen to one another and exchange ideas.
“We just felt it’s timely,” said Rabbi Lee Bycel of Congregation Beth Shalom, who brought up the idea to his fellow clergy members in mid-January. “This was urgent and we needed to take a leadership role as clergy.”
U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson was invited to speak. The St. Helena Democrat chairs a congressional task force on gun violence, created after the Dec. 14 shootings in Newtown, Conn., where 20 students and six adult staff members were shot dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Thompson said the task force is drafting principles that run the gamut from what sort of gun restrictions should be considered to what to do about assault gun magazines and background checks. About 40 percent of the firearms transactions are done without a background check, he noted.
“There are no easy answers. There is no one issue,” said Thompson. “There is no one bill. There is no one person that’s going to be able to turn this thing around.”
“It’s very complex. It covers so many disciplines, it will make your head swim. But the fact of the matter is, we need to work on it.”
Referring to mental health services, Thompson said, “We’re light-years from where we need to be.”
What happened on Dec. 14 in Connecticut was a “terrible, terrible tragedy,” he said. “No one can deny that. But the terrible truth is, since Newtown, over 1,000 people have been killed with guns.
“We really need to work together to figure this out and make sure we can slow it down,” he continued, referring to the number of shootings. “There is always going to be tragedies. There is always going to be violence. But by golly, we have a responsibility as a community to try to make our community safer, our town safer, our school safer … And I think it’s something we can do.”
For about 45 minutes, the dozen groups of 10, which included Napa Mayor Jill Techel and Board of Supervisors Chairman Brad Wagenknecht, led by a facilitator, discussed the issues and possible solutions to gun violence in America. Discussions ranged from the pros and cons to amend the U.S. Constitution, poverty as a root cause of gun violence, suicide and the mental health system.
A volunteer took notes, which will be transcribed.
Bycel said he expects themes to emerge. “Today is the beginning. We need many more conversations like this. And we need conversations that lead to action,” he said.
Jack Hopkins, a retired airline pilot and gun owner, supports such discussions. “It’s very helpful because it raises an awareness that is community-wide,” he said.
Both Cheri Taylor and Jane Williams supported efforts to put on the forum.
“This is a very good idea,” said Taylor, who wants to raise awareness of symptoms of mental illness, particularly symptoms of abnormal behavior in children. “You learn new things, new ideas. It gives a chance for everybody to express their feelings,” she said. “We’re all a community.”
Williams, who has worked with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said she has worked to prevent gun violence in her son’s memory. “To me, if you’re a gun owner, you should be a responsible gun owner,” she said.
“The reason my son died is because the man who killed him had a handgun and a temper,” said Williams. “And I think we that we need to make it much harder for people to be able to have guns.”