Diana MacQuarrie was appalled as she watched the aftermath of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School from her Olympia living room.
Like many others, she was heartbroken by the violence and the deaths of students and staff in Connecticut. But what sticks with her nearly four years later is the feeling that nothing had really changed.
“I’m a former educator, and Sandy Hook just stunned me,” MacQuarrie said. “And watching the grieving parents go before Congress, and seeing nothing done, was a huge event for me.”
She wasn’t alone.
A few months after a shooting at a Charleston church left nine people dead, a group of Thurston County residents banded together to form Thurston Gun Sense, an entity that hopes to end gun-related deaths — including suicides, homicides and accidental deaths — locally.
Initially the group was small, but over the course of a year it has grown, with about 40 agencies and individuals involved.
“I think that one of the things that brings people into the group is that sense of hopelessness,” said Tyra Lindquist, one of the group’s organizers. “It’s something that’s gut-wrenching and heartbreaking, and it makes people think, ‘I have to do something.’ ”
Members of the group range from Olympia High School students, to Interfaith Works, to the Olympia YWCA, to Pizza Klatch.
Although their membership is widespread, organizer Leslie Cushman said they’re striving for a narrow focus. For now, they’re concentrated on Thurston County and are gearing most of their efforts toward suicide prevention.
One of the starting points for the group is gun violence statistics from the Thurston County Public Health and Social Services Department, which also has become a member of Gun Sense.
Twenty-five people died in Thurston County in 2015 as a result of firearms, according to county records. Of those deaths, 21, or 84 percent, were suicides. Three, or 12 percent, were homicides. One death was undetermined.
The suicide numbers in particular stunned the group, Cushman said.
“That gave us an initial focus to move forward,” Cushman said. “I think we can make huge inroads when it comes to suicide prevention.
“And it’s so personal. Most of us know someone who has committed suicide. It’s a tragedy that affects all of us,” she added.
To be effective, the group is steering away from lofty constitutional discussions and instead toward concrete actions, Lindquist said. She, Cushman and MacQuarrie said they’re not trying to make guns illegal — in fact, Cushman said she owns a gun. They’re trying to prevent unnecessary deaths.
“We don’t have to get mired down in constitutional issues,” Lindquist said. “They’re totally beside the point. There are specific actions we can take to prevent gun deaths in our neighborhoods. We’re not talking about nationwide. We’re talking about on our streets.”
One of these concrete actions has been handing out gun locks, obtained from the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, at various events, including Capital Lakefair. The group will again hand out the locks Oct. 20 at their first public event.
The event will include a screening of “Under the Gun,” a documentary about gun violence narrated and produced by Katie Couric. Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, the parents of a woman killed during the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, will attend as guest speakers.
The event will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the United Churches of Olympia at 110 11th Ave. SE.
Gun Sense also has promoted existing efforts by other groups — including Initiative 1491, otherwise known as the extreme risk protection order initiative. If approved by voters, the measure would allow family members and law enforcement officers to petition judges to prohibit people deemed a danger to themselves or others from owning guns.
A few weeks ago, Gun Sense members participated in the Out of the Darkness suicide prevention walk at Marathon Park.
Lindquist said Gun Sense hopes to hold mental health first aid sessions, which would teach people how to help friends, family members and others in crisis.
“There’s a very common-sense approach to helping someone who is contemplating suicide,” Lindquist said. “Many of us know someone who has been suicidal, and we quake in our boots about what to say and how to say it. But the curriculum walks you through exactly how to approach it, helping everybody just calm down.”
“This already exists — we don’t have to invent mental health first aid. But we can deploy it to the community,” Cushman said.
Cushman said she hopes that Gun Sense will expand to include more of Thurston County, creating an environment in which people can talk about guns comfortably.
“It shouldn’t be taboo. We ought to be able to have ordinary conversations.” Cushman said.
To learn more, contact Gun Sense at firstname.lastname@example.org.