Culver 878 Questions Council Candidates on Guns

Culver 878 is a project started by local parents and organizers to advocate for reasonable gun safety measures in Culver City. While not yet organized as a 501(c)3, the organization has hosted several events in recent years to bring more focus to gun issues in Culver City. 

A group of people with the organization formulated questions,  and reached out to all city council candidates to ask them about gun issues. Culver City Crossroads is offering a reprint of the conversation here.

Culver 878 – In August, the city created the Firearms Policy sub-comittee in response to our calls for local gun reform. We’ve taken a bit of a break while our proposed ordinances are under review and consideration with the committee – however, the conversation is scheduled to resume in regular council meetings in November, so you can expect to hear more from us in the coming weeks! In the meantime, it’s local election season (!) and we have put together an informative Q&A with the 6 candidates running for Culver City city council: Alex Fisch (Democrat) Khin Khin Gyi (Democrat) Dan O’Brien (Decline to state) Freddy Puza (Democrat) Denice Renteria (Democrat) Devin Yaeger (Decline to state.)

We recently learned that candidates Dan O’Brien and Denice Renteria had both received donations from the owner of a local gun business. While we are concerned with the reasons they would be supported by them in the first place, we reached out to both campaigns directly for comment and to request that they consider returning the donations. Ms. Renteria’s campaign returned the donation within 24 hours of our inquiry. We want to thank her for understanding our concern and taking action.Mr. O’Brien advised that he will not be returning the donation, but states it “goes against my campaign ethos of bringing people together.”

Please find the Q&A below. Out of fairness to the candidates we have included all provided answers in their entirety. All views and opinions are those of the candidates and do not necessarily represent those of Culver 878. We encourage readers to fact check and do their research on best practices particularly when it comes to the unhoused, policing, and school safety.

1. Why do you think there is so much gun violence locally and nationally in the US?

ALEX FISCH: Gun violence is rampant in the US because there are so many guns and guns are so poorly regulated. There are surely other precipitating events–such as income inequality, poverty, and underinvestment in the public sector, all of which can and should be addressed at every level of government for many reasons–but what distinguishes the United States from other places with similar problems is the number of guns in general circulation. People who care about solving this problem are livid at the recent Supreme Court gun ruling in Bruen that essentially created a personal right to carry anywhere in the United States. Before Heller in 2008, there had never been a personal right to own a handgun at home. Now, those of us who believe that the second amendment confers a much more seriously circumscribed right are scrambling to imagine what public health minded officials can even still do to regulate the menace of gun violence. Simply put: more guns lead to more gun violence. Their ubiquity creates a serious public health nightmare. For example, in 2018, gun-related deaths accounted for 919,185 years of potential life lost before the age of 65 – more than diabetes, stroke, and liver disease combined. And unfortunately, one common reaction at the start of the pandemic was to buy a gun.

KHIN KHIN GYI: The tenor of political discourse has changed for the worse since Trump started campaigning for his presidency in 2015. Who could forget his statement about him shooting someone in the middle of Time Square and there would be no consequences to him.

DAN O’BRIEN: After doing some research, it appears that there is a combination of factors that have lead to so much gun violence on a national scale: 1. The easy access to firearms. I would like to see stringent requirements for gun purchase from any person or establishment, including gun safety courses. Adding that extra measure would allow instructors to better assess a person’s mental/emotional state, and give the purchaser a better skill set in handling a firearm. 2. Lack of proper assessment tools for mental health disorders and the support systems to deal with it. 59% of gun deaths are attributed to suicide. This is something that needs to be addressed outside of the gun conversation. 3. High rate of poverty. Violent crime and gun violence predominantly comes from communities in economically stressed environments. As a nation, we need to work towards diversion programs and assistance to keep young people away from crime, and by association, gun violence.

FREDDY PUZA: Gun violence in the United States is endemic and needs to be treated as the public health crisis that it is. The principal cause of gun violence in our communities and country is easy access to guns. In poll after poll, the vast majority of Americans (including gun owners) say they want to see better gun safety measures in place to protect children and the public; we simply need the political will to realize this goal. It is important to mobilize at the grassroots level to assure that elected officials can no longer be swayed by the exorbitantly well-funded gun lobby, and so it is possible to adopt policies that protect community well-being. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/why-theres-so-much-gun-violence-in-the-u-s-and-what-to-do-about-it/  Dr. Jonathan Metzl, professor and director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University, has conducted numerous studies on gun violence. His research looks beyond mental health issues as the cause of gun violence and mass shootings. He suggests that mental illness is not a predictor of mass shootings because most people with mental illness are non-violent. Many shootings happen with warning and occur more when there is more social instability like housing insecurity and economic factors. He says that everyday gun violence is patterned and predictable and we can prevent it if we provide more resources and services to people in society as a whole.

DENICE RENTERIA: I believe that the reasons the United States has an unusually high rate of gun violence are complex and varied, but in large part it comes down to the availability of guns and insufficient regulations.

DEVIN YAEGER: The majority of of US firearm killings result from suicide at nearly 60%, followed by murder at approximately 39%, and policing killings and accidents at approximately 1%. There are also approximately 40 mass shooter events per year in the US. Clearly there is a mental health crisis among among Americans, leading to mass shootings and rampant suicides. While it is a controversial view, I take the position that a large percentage of the murders involving guns are gang and drug-economy related. Young men in Los Angeles county and America at large too frequently rely on firearms to settle disputes. The vast majority of firearm killings result from handguns. While school shootings and other mass casualty events capture our attention, and are horrendous acts which should make us reflect on what we are doing wrong as a society, the truth is that most gun deaths are the culmination of multiple suicide attempts, or an impulsive overreaction in a fight. Los Angeles is arguably the gang capital of the world. Through our music, movies, and multiple generations of gang involvement, we exist in a culture of gang membership and gang affiliation. Culver City itself used to have a thriving gang populations (e.g., just 3 or 4 years ago I was nearly on a jury for a Culver City Boyz vs Venice 13 gang murder trial). I believe gang activity in Culver City has reduced significantly as housing prices have increased. However, gang presence still exists and certainly gang violence still occurs on the perimeter of Culver City, as notorious gangs still operate actively in West Adams, Inglewood, and Venice. The homeless encampments serve as forward operating now for such gangs, dealing meth, fentynal and heroin, and likely charging protection fees to “unhoused residents.” Culver City’s gang task force needs to be reinvigorated to clamp down on this activity. And our police and welfare departments need to do more to help identify people at-risk of falling victim to suicide or perpetrating a mass shooting. While I don’t have the perfect solutions for this, a mix of a direct police hotline to report potentially dangerous individuals needing mental help, more officer hours dedicated to wellness checks, and publicity efforts to normalize calling such a hotline to report at-risk individuals, seems to a reasonable solution.

2. CCPD has reported a significant increase in gun-related crime and violent incidents in the past 4 years. As a city, what can we do to reduce these crimes and incidents?

ALEX FISCH: We have not done a good job explaining changes in crime. In my opinion, our crime data reporting tends to lack the context necessary for objectivity and dispassionate policy response. For example, a recent internal analysis of crimes over the first six months of 2022 showed a startling percentage increase in shootings; however, the actual number of shooting incidents were in the single digits, creating uncertainty about the statistical significance of the variation (what is sometimes called the “small-n problem” where a small sample size means that small fluctuations always appear significant). While any number of violent incidents is too many, we should strive to ensure that our presentations of data are rich with context. Still, based on what seem to be national trends, anecdotes, and the increased number of guns in circulation, I believe that we, and most US communities, are experiencing an increase in gun-related crime and acts of violence. Investing in community violence intervention programs is one approach that has science behind it to demonstrate effectiveness. As we build out our new, unarmed first responder service (building on the mobile crisis intervention team that we authorized in my first term), I would like that department to serve also as an office of violence prevention, creating community violence prevention and intervention programs. The city should also offer summer programming, employment opportunities and services and support for teenagers and young adults, particularly young men. In the long-term, such programs might possibly be funded via a tax on gun sales, though such a tax would require a vote of the public. If there is support on the new council, I would love to prepare such an ordinance for a public vote during a future election. An important aspect to addressing any public health crises is an excellent public health communication effort. We need to speak with one voice about gun violence out of city hall, standing in solidarity against the idea that guns make us safer. For example, returning to our prior practice of using traffic enforcement as a pretext for stop and frisk would create more danger for our community, even if it results in some increase in the confiscation of guns. I am always very interested in evidence-based public policy ideas, and I am very open to learning more from 878. As a member of the Firearms Policy Subcommittee, along with Council Member McMorrin, I have strived to enact every legally sound method of increasing the safety of our community, and I look forward to learning what more we can do.

KHIN KHIN GYI: We can introduce a local ordinance requiring that gun owners register their guns and demonstrate ability to store them safely and use them safely just the way car owners have to do so.

DAN O’BRIEN: There are some preventative measures we can take to try and stem violent crime and gun-related crime. First, allowing our officers to pull over vehicles for minor traffic violation offenses again would be a start. Prior to a policy shift away from such pull-overs, CCPD confiscated an average of 12 illegal firearms per month for many years. Since a policy shift away from such pull-overs, CCPD has averaged just over three illegal firearms confiscations. This difference totals over 100 illegal firearms being left on the streets. Regarding violent crime in Culver City, over 90% of arrested suspects from Culver City crimes reside outside of Culver City; this includes gun-related crimes. One way to address this would be to install cameras and license plate readers on the thoroughfares in Culver City. This is something our neighbors in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills use. These readers can quickly discover whether a vehicle entering the city is stolen or owned by a person with a warrant, and have been known to stop criminals before they attempt another crime. They can also be used to better assess the direction a criminal is headed after committing a crime. FREDDY PUZA: I’d like to start by sharing what we can do to prevent violence and crime in our community, because understanding how harmful violence is and realizing how violent our society has become, is disheartening and anxiety-producing. Beginning with what we can do is empowering. There is a great deal of evidence-based research showing that investment in communities is more effective than spending as much as we do on policing and incarceration. Many of our social problems (domestic violence, bullying, homelessness, untreated mental health crises and dysfunctional substance use—including alcohol, medicines, and other substances) are treatable. When support is provided, relationship-building is prioritized, when people are respected and provided with trauma-informed care, harm reduction, and when rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing is available, stability is much more likely to be attained, healing can begin, and violence is reduced. All of these issues are related and while they are complex, there are many solutions at our disposal. We need the political will to respond to problems systematically, and this is where changes can be made at the policy level. I am committed to care-based responses to public safety needs—the first rule in health care is “do no harm;” we should embrace the same motto when it comes to public safety. I fully support the new mobile crisis intervention unit that the city expects to roll out by the end of this year. We will save money and help more people in our community if we reimagine our public safety spending, which is currently at ~40% of our city’s general fund budget. Vulnerable people are far more likely to be victims of crimes, than perpetrators. This includes women, children, LGBTQ and trans individuals, all of whom experience domestic violence and violence from people they know or strangers, at higher rates. While Culver City is a relatively small municipality, there is a lot of evidence that income inequality is harmful. Many egregious crimes are caused by affluent people but not described as violent or dangerous. People with the fewest financial resources are stressed by the lack of money, shelter, food, and other necessities. I would like to see Culver City pass an increase in the minimum wage and I would like to see our city conduct a Universal Basic Income (UBI) pilot, to begin to address this fundamentally unfair situation. We need to build much more housing, at all income levels and particularly affordable housing, so people are not displaced by high rents and so that more people don’t fall into homelessness. Since the pandemic began, as in other parts of California, there has been an increase in certain kinds of reported crime and violence in Culver City, while the incidence of other kinds of crime have actually fallen.* However, overall, in California, violent crime is much lower than its 1992 peak, with rates staying fairly stable over the last decade. We should all be very concerned by violence, and hate crimes, in particular.

*Regarding crimes involving the use of a firearm, according to the Culver City Police Department: · During 2019, there were 23 incidents · During 2020, 29 incidents · During 2021, 48 incidents · By midyear 2022, there were 26 incidents, so the number of reported crimes involving the use of a firearm by the end of this year is likely to be similar to 2021 From mid-year 2021 to mid-year 2022, total violent crime, as reported by the CCPD was up 24.6% (with simple assault up 52% and robbery up 44.2%). However, rape/sexual assault was down -30.7% and aggravated assault was down by -13.5% https://www.culvercitypd.org/files/assets/police/documents/monthly-reports/2022-mid-year-report.pdf https://www.ppic.org/publication/crime-trends-in-california/

DENICE RENTERIA: While additional local regulations should be part of the solution, reducing crime and other violent incidents here is more complicated than that because we are surrounded on all sides by the City of Los Angeles. Guns purchased and otherwise acquired in Los Angeles can easily travel over an invisible border – often, across the street – and be used in acts of violence here. I appreciate and support many of the proposals that your group has brought to the City Council, and I think we also need to work with our local law enforcement to determine how we can get guns off the streets and implement community solutions that discourage those who would engage in violent activity from doing so in our city.

DEVIN YAEGER: More actively police gangs and homeless populations. Gangs sell drugs to and victimize the homeless. In response, many homeless arm themselves. I would argue that nearly every encampment under the 405 has at least one firearm. If the city does not have the guts to keep these underpasses clear of homeless entirely, at a minimum CCPD should regularly sweep these areas for guns and drugs, using police dogs to obtain probable cause to conduct searches. Approximately 75% of crime in Culver City emanates from the homeless population. I suspect at least 50% of gun-related crime has some direct or indirect tie to the same issue. Proactively clearing encampments and keeping the areas clear, and at the same time sending a strong message to homeless individuals and the gangs that service these communities, that Culver City will not be a safe haven for them, will surely reduce these numbers significantly. Culver City must get tough on homeless related crime and stop putting its head in the sand and blaming addiction, high rent, and other macro factors. If a certain group is causing a huge portion of the crime, then they should be dealt with. This is not racism or classism or any form of discrimination. This enforcing the law and treating all people equally. If you are in possession of a weapon, narcotics, or burglary tool, or if you are in the business of supplying such things, or buying stolen items, then you should be arrested and punished. Homeless, homeowner, renter, monk, councilman…. the same rules should apply to you. You do the crime, you do the time.

3. Do you think new reasonable local firearm regulations for gun businesses and owners are needed?

ALEX FISCH: I support any and all efforts that can legally be undertaken to regulate the sale of guns at the local level.

KHIN KHIN GYI: Yes, we do need reasonable local firearm regulations for gun businesses and owners.

DAN O’BRIEN: I am very open to new reasonable firearms regulations. I think any new regulation should be carefully considered with input from the community. The gun culture in the US has gotten out of control, and I believe there should always be a very high bar to reach before one can own or operate a firearm.

FREDDY PUZA: Yes, certainly!

DENICE RENTERIA: Yes.

DEVIN YAEGER: No, I think Culver City has one of the few gun stores in West LA, and Los Angelenos have a right to buy guns. To make Angelenos travel 15+ miles to buy a gun (i.e. to drive into the Valley or South Bay) seems unreasonably burdensome. Martin B. Retting brings income and visitors to the city and it is a well run establishment. I live just done the street and its presence makes me feel safer, not unsafe.

4. How do you feel about our existing local gun businesses’ proximity to our elementary schools and parks/playgrounds?

ALEX FISCH: The proximity of our local gun store to La Ballona Elementary and Tellefson Park, as well as houses of worship, troubles me. While the 10-day waiting period reduces the concern of someone impulsively leaving the store to commit an act of violence, it troubles me that some members of our community, including impressionable and/or vulnerable members, have to pass the larger-than-life advertising so frequently. I have extensively researched the possibility of using our land use authority to address this proximity issue, but I am a bit discouraged about the City’s power here.

KHIN KHIN GYI: It leaves me queasy and uneasy to have the local gun business be so close to an elementary school, parks/playgrounds and a place of worship.

DAN O’BRIEN: I would prefer that gun retailers are outside of the 1,000 foot range of a school, park or playground, and support having that law take effect for any new gun retailers. I am concerned about enacting such a regulation for existing retailers – especially if they have operated in good faith, obeying all existing gun regulations.

FREDDY PUZA: It’s very concerning. I think our city council should explore all legal means to address this safety hazard and enact ordinance(s) that reflect our commitment as a community to prevent children from harm.

DENICE RENTERIA: It looks like there are two local gun businesses in Culver City, one of which is approximately one block away from La Ballona Elementary, and one block from Tellefson Park. While I believe that it is not ideal for gun businesses to be located close to parks and schools, I would be concerned about the potential constitutionality of enacting ordinances targeted at specific businesses – and would be interested in obtaining a legal opinion from the Culver City City Attorney’s office on the subject. (*There are actually 4 registered gun businesses in Culver City which include gun smitheries in addition to retailers.)

DEVIN YAEGER: Same response as above. It’s not like 5-10 year olds are going to buy guns after school. The numerous 7-11 stores with the high number of vagrants panhandling outside and buying alcohol and being intoxicated on alcohol and drugs, make me (and those same school children) feel far less safe. Does that mean we should ban 7-11s and liquor stores? No. But it does mean we should crack down on panhandling, public intoxication, and public indecency.

5. As a council member, what would you do to keep our schools free of gun violence?

ALEX FISCH: We passed an ordinance requiring safe storage of guns in my first term. We can do more and better messaging from the city and the school board to residents and parents about the dangers of guns in the home. Once established, mobile crisis teams may provide a new option to address some stalking, domestic violence, or less-easy-to-articulate behavioral issues that teachers and peers at the schools might presently be uncomfortable bringing to the attention of police. In addition, we can look at taxing gun sales and licenses to pay for violence intervention programs/diversion programs. When Congress refused to allow America to study the impacts of gun violence, California stepped up. The Real Public Safety Plan includes additional funding for California’s nation-leading gun violence research center at UC Davis. Here in Culver City, we need to base our policy decisions on this and other research to craft effective policy. With many past controversies in the rearview mirror, I’ve started to turn my attention to this research. We should be as innovative in reducing violence as we have been in other policy areas.

KHIN KHIN GYI: As a council member, I would increase the students’ access to counselors and therapists as there has been an increase in anxiety among adolescents with the pandemic.

DAN O’BRIEN: The biggest fear is having a young person who is experiencing a mental health crisis and has access to a firearm enter their school and become another story of a mass shooting. The best thing a city council member can do to help safeguard against this is to work with our school board to ensure that the school district has the resources they need to be able to assess whether a student is at risk of being a shooter. Many of the stories we hear about shooters is they are current students who have shown signs of mental health distress, but nothing was done to address it. I also think that we can be proactive in educating our schools’ parents in ensuring any firearms they might own are safely and securely stored – maybe we could offer free lockboxes. I’ve never considered this before, but it seems like it could be a good idea.

FREDDY PUZA: I want to listen to local, regional and national groups who have been studying gun violence to find out what Culver City can do to prevent gun violence in our schools. I would also like to look to our school district to partner with groups like Culver 878 on solutions for CCUSD.

DENICE RENTERIA: School and district policy is primarily a matter for our school board, which has authority in that space. However, I would support reasonable local regulations to ensure that our community – and especially children in our community – are safe, and I look forward to hearing more from your group regarding potential proposals and continuing to engage in dialogue with you.

DEVIN YAEGER: I would attack the homeless problem as explained in previous questions. I would also increase security at schools, either through more police presence in the neighborhoods (i.e., have squad cars positioned near schools when not responding to other calls) or through the hiring/budgeting of private security guards on the campuses. Children are our greatest resource. To think that we have guards at banks, jewelry stores, and grocery stores, but think twice about paying for guards at all of our schools, is crazy to me. I travel all over the world, and in most countries, schools have armed private guards. I am a fan of having a mixture of police and private security, the private security guards to literally guard our children, and police to ensure a rapid response and help deter attackers. The police should not be on campus to arrest pot smokers or truant students, but to coordinate with the security guards, and in the event of violence to arrest those responsible. I believe schools should have a zero tolerance policy on violence. If a student is found with a gun or knife, s/he should be arrested and expelled. Instead of drug dogs, there should be gun/explosive dogs regularly patrolling schools. Students should be informed of the purpose of the on campus police and dogs. A big factor in why America has so much gang activity and associated violence is distrust of the police and apathy towards our justice systems. Trust needs to be built between the state and Black and Brown communities, so that people feel more confident going to the police to report crimes, rather than relying on internal systems of justice. This takes time. And it should start in our schools. School Resource Officers should be treated as just that, resources. Not there to bust petty drug offenses, but to be a channel through which students can learn to build trust with the police and hopefully to report serious things they witness, or people they are worried about and who more specialized officers can then go and follow up on. The police need to dedicate more resources to preempting school shootings by developing an approachable demeanor so that students, parents, and others in the community can feel comfortable reporting risky people, and having an apparatus in place to track and follow up on such individuals (data management systems, protocols on regular wellness checks, specially trained officers and mental health outreach coordinators). This is how you stop school shootings. This is how I would like my tax dollars spent. And this is my vision for policing in the 2020s.

We want to thank all candidates for their time and participation. We’re appreciative for the opportunity to hear from you on this important topic. Please remember to vote on or before November 8th! 

 
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