Gun owners, teachers, NRA members, concerned citizens and survivors of gun violence testified publicly Thursday before an audience of at least 500 on what they believe should be done to stem the tide of mass shootings around the nation.
The solutions ranged between two extremes -- from arming everyone in every home and school to outright bans on semi-automatic weapons and stricter gun controls. And everything in between.
"It's a very complex issue," said U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who convened the forum on gun violence prevention at the Sonoma County Supervisors' meeting room in Santa Rosa. "You have the mental health component, the education component, the background checks part, the guns part and the culture of violence."
As to the last issue -- culture of violence -- Thompson said that part may be even harder to address than interpreting the Second Amendment right to bear arms because it involves free speech protections under the First Amendment for violent video games or movies.
"If you think the Second Amendment stuff is tough, you should try the First," Thompson said.
Spurred by the Dec. 14 school massacre in Connecticut, shell-shocked Sonoma and Mendocino county residents attendended the forum, so many so that attendees poured out the door of the county building or sat on the floor or folding chairs in the hallway.
Madeleine Melo, whose husband, Ft. Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo, was murdered in 2011, said she supports the right to own annd use guns for protection, but that “unchecked acts of violent criminals take away the rights of others to live a safe and protected life.”
Petaluma Attorney Jeffery Zimmerman, who last year watched his client Kim Bascom shot to death by her husband "before my eyes," said the event changed him forever.
He said he believes there are small but doable steps that can be taken to reduce gun proliferation -- such as the government buy-back programs or limiting high-capacity magazines on semi-automatic weapons.
Most speakers said they supported increased mental health screenings for troubled children and adults. Educators and fellow students shouldn't ignore disturbed kids, and parents need to take more responsibility to act if their children have problems, speakers said.
A retired Petaluma police captain in the audience said that mental health records should be added in background data when police do traffic stops.
"They ought to get the mental health records in the CII and the NCIC," he said, referring to the criminal databases used by police.
Others said improving enforcement of existing gun control laws and background checks was the way to go rather than adding new laws restricting gun ownership.
"I'm not in favor of gun control," said one man who said he was a military veteran. "What we need is a generous (gun) buy back program." He and others said they were in favor of limiting rounds of ammunition on semi-automatic weapons, however.
"If it takes me more than five rounds to get rid of an intruder, I should be dead," he said.
Several other veterans and police officers said they wanted their families to have the same type of gun protection that they employ at work.
"I carry an AR-15 high capacity weapon every day," said a man who identified himself as a police officer. "I find it deplorable that my wife cannot protect herself if I'm gone."
Others said that concealed carry permits should be universally available.
"I find it ridiculous and hypocritical that we have concealed carry permits in 35 states and in Mendocino County, but not in Sonoma County," one man said.
Margaret Fishman, who said she was a gun owner, said she nonetheless supports a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons, of the type used by the military. Fully automatic assault weapons are already illegal.
"The public will and the political will are at an intersection," she said. "The time is now -- ban assault weapons."
Gary Greenough of Santa Rosa, a retired police officer and military veteran, said changing the gun laws would not improve people's feelings of safety.
"Law abiding citizens should never be punished," he said "We have the right to protect ourselves because the police cannot."
Others on the panel included Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas, Sonoma County Mental Health Board Chair Mike Kennedy, Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, Sonoma County Supervisor Dave Rabbitt, Sonoma County Office of Education Director Steve Herrington and Blake Graham of the U.S. Department of Justice.
What do you think? What can the U.S. do to reduce gun violence?