A community meeting, hold the community

Held in the Santa Monica City Council chambers, the meeting Monday was promoted as a "Forum on Gun Violence, Mental Health and Community Recovery: Responses to the June 7, 2013, Santa Monica Shootings." It was convened by Congressman Henry Waxman from California's 33rd--the liberal Westside/West Valley district that has sent him to Washington every two years since 1974.

Henry Waxman, SM City Hall July15-13.jpg The panel of government and government-adjacent leaders reflected on the violence last month that ended the lives of six people, including the mentally disturbed perpetrator, and proffered ideas about how to defuse our national predilection for shooting each other. The forum was also Waxman's opportunity to announce his intention to introduce federal legislation that addresses not only gun safety but the mental health issues that sometimes play a role.

The audience of about 100 people listened to panelists speaking in turns from the City Council dais after Santa Monica Mayor Pam O'Connor welcomed this opportunity "to tackle the issues of gun violence and mental illness on both the local and national level." Later, she sought more funding (a common theme) to do so in Santa Monica.

State Sen. Ted Lieu said that California has some of the strongest gun laws in the nation, but that loopholes make a mockery (my words) of the state's ability to keep unwelcome weapons and their some-assembly-required components out of our state.

L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky spoke to the misconception that the mentally ill are disproportionately responsible for violent crime: "People with mental illness are not more violent than anyone else," he said, noting that only 3% to 5% of violent crimes are attributed to the mentally ill.

As Waxman started to introduce the next speaker, the man in the three-piece suit and eggbeater-groomed hair sitting next to me stood up and shouted, "Mr. Waxman, why aren't we talking about 12 years of war based on lies? Why aren't we talking about discovering our government is spying on Americans? Why aren't we talking about impeachment...?"

"If you wanna talk about gun violence, I wanna talk about the root causes."

Waxman thanked the man, Mark Lipman, for his comments. A cop approached, leaned across me and told Lipman that if he continued to speak out of turn he would be arrested.

Pamela Hyde, administrator of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) was up next. She mentioned several programs that address mental and behavioral health issues, but said that 40% of the 45 million American adults with mental illness and 20% of adolescents still don't receive treatment. To address the younger demographic, she said that "We need to teach emotional as well as soccer and math skills."

Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks discussed the response to the gun rampage last month, reminded everyone that the shooter, John Zawahri, had been diagnosed with mental illness and received treatment, but that we still "have to address why pain is acted out in gun violence."

Dr. Nancy Greenstein, chairwoman of the Board of Trustees of Santa Monica College and the director of Police Community Services at the UCLA Police Department, was eloquent in parsing the mental health issues common on college campuses and how they can proliferate if we don't restrict access to firearms and educate the community; that, like Santa Monica College, campus personnel throughout the U.S. should get training in how to handle a shooter in their midst: "It's something that you can't not do."

Suzanne Verge, President of the L.A. chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, struck an emotional chord in recalling how her 18-year-old brother was a contributor to the sad statistic that 32 people are murdered every day in America by guns, and that 51 people use them every day to commit suicide. And that thanks to the background checks mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, 2 million people have been blocked from buying guns, and that half of them were felons.

The panelists spent 20 or 30 minutes asking each other questions. Then Waxman began thanking everyone as a man in a maroon shirt and tie rose and asked Seabrooks what she thought about the recent passage in Illinois of a concealed-carry law.

Waxman said they were out of time, and suggested the fellow follow up later with the police chief.

The reporter next to me and I stared at each other in disbelief. We said, simultaneously, "They're not taking questions?"

After the event concluded, some folks milled around in private conversation. I asked Waxman why a community meeting failed to entertain questions from the community.

"It's a hearing," he semi-explained, "but we couldn't hold it officially because I'm in the minority."

I guess I missed civics class the day we learned that if your party holds fewer House seats its representatives are proscribed from answering constituent questions in a public forum.

"We structured it this way," Waxman continued digging, "because we selectively chose witnesses with various perspectives. Community meetings are a different kind of forum."

I cannot translate from the original polspeak, so I asked Yaroslavsky for interpretation. The feds, he said, "have different rules from the county. ... 95% of meetings at the Board of Supervisors have public input," he said.

But we're not in L.A., we're here, in party-in-the-minority land; so what's his feeling about not having questions from the audience?

"I have no opinion," and since when does a politician have no opinion? Apparently having borrowed Waxman's shovel, he said, "You have to make choices, ..." Then, I swear to God, he said, "They needed to clear the room by 11:30." Realizing how that must have sounded, Yaroslavsky said something about people having tight schedules. Finally, he asked, "Who is ill-served by [not having questions from the public]?"

I am. You are. He is.

There was a substantive, important meeting Monday morning at Santa Monica City Hall, but it felt like the audience had been a movie prop; seat-fillers for a bunch of hard-working, results-oriented public servants who needed positive reinforcement of the anonymous kind.

Photo: Congressman Henry Waxman at Santa Monica City Hall by Ellen Alperstein

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