The day after a Washington state high school student opened fire on his classmates, killing one and injuring three others, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich held a press conference to decry the frequency of such shootings.
“This is a situation that plays out in our society way too often, and we as a society need to make a determination as to what’s causing this,” he said Thursday afternoon. Knezovich then launched into a list of factors he believes were at play when 15-year-old suspect Caleb Sharpe, who has been identified in court documents, brought both a handgun and an AR-15 rifle to Freeman High School on Wednesday.
The sheriff blamed the media:
This young gentleman got sucked into a counterculture of violence, a culture that is enamored with school shootings. And media, you are to blame for that, because you keep giving these people headlines. You keep using their names. You have made them heroes to some people. If I had my way, none of these people’s names would ever be remembered.
He blamed parenting skills:
Where did we really go sideways in raising our kids? Perhaps we taught them to glorify the wrong things. All this violence that they constantly consume has come home to pay a major price. It is time for each and every one of us to say no more to the hate that we see, to the violence that we see.
He blamed politicians:
[Lawmakers on] both the right and the left, you’re both enamored by radicalized hate. You seem to hate everybody and everything. It’s time for you to end that too.
He blamed the lack of local mental health services:
They [the federal government] have pushed this problem to the local level, and the local level is not equipped to deal with it. This is a state and national issue that they better wake up and start dealing with.
He blamed video games:
You started glorifying cultures of violence. You glorified gang culture. You glorified games that actually give you points for raping and killing people.
But when a reporter asked Knezovich how the shooter had access to the firearms used to kill classmate Sam Strahan and injure three others, the sheriff was reluctant to discuss gun control issues.
“Minors are not supposed to be in possession of a handgun until they’re 21,” he said. “You never know how people get ahold of weapons. Those are things we’ll be digging into in trying to figure out what exactly happened here.”
But it’s no mystery how Sharpe gained access to the weapons he fired at school. Knezovich acknowledged there is a gun safe in Sharpe’s house. The teen told police that he knows the combination to the safe and bragged to fellow students that his father purchased guns for him, according to court documents reviewed by The Spokesman-Review.
“We’ll have to figure it out and go from there,” Knezovich said of the safe. ”[A]s a parent, you need to take care of how you store those things.”
The sheriff’s resistance to focusing on the firearms in the Freeman High shooting fits with the longstanding effort of gun lobbyists and politicians to avoid discussing the elephant in the room in the wake of tragedies like this.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long been barred from using federal funds to research gun violence. Attempts to lift that ban in Congress have been unsuccessful. Despite firearms killing more than 30,000 people in the U.S. every year, gun violence remains the least researched major cause of death relative to the number of lives it claims, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association in January.
While researchers have found a correlation between weaker gun laws and school shootings in the U.S. ― where the number of such events far outstrips those in the rest of the developed world ― the available data are limited, and the CDC can’t help fill in the gaps.
The resistance by many lawmakers to discuss gun control after a mass shooting has become so commonplace that The Onion now parodies the response after such tragedies, always with the headline ”‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
Still, Knezovich argued at Thursday’s press conference that guns have been a constant in the U.S. since long before mass shootings became such frequent news. He leaned on evidence from his own experience.
“It all depends on the 15-year-old. I can tell you folks, I carried a gun all my life,” he said, recalling that his classmates left guns in the backs of their cars during school so they could go hunting afterward.
“Guns didn’t change, we changed,” Knezovich said.
The sheriff’s claim is misleading at best. Gun manufacturing in the U.S. has skyrocketed in recent years, jumping from nearly 5.5 million firearms in 2010 to nearly 10.9 million in 2013, with the overwhelming majority of them staying in the country, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. There are now more guns than people in the U.S.
But how the rising numbers of guns ― or any of the other factors that Knezovich blamed ― contribute to gun violence will remain unclear so long as the CDC and the researchers who rely on its funding are limited in studying the matter.
“We never said guns were a disease,” Charles Branas, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, told HuffPost in December. “There’s a huge difference between guns and gun violence. Gun violence is the outcome we’re trying to prevent. We’re not trying to prevent guns.”
Nick Wing contributed reporting.