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"Tiny Timebombs": How Mayors Must Deal In City Crisis

Andy Nelson/Register Guard

When tragedy strikes a region, it is up to The Head of City--the mayor--to respond with empathy along with prompt, reliable information and a plan of action. This is no easy task. The recent mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg has city leaders reflecting on the past and uncertain about the future.

October 1st, 2015 will remain etched in the memories of many. It is the day a 26-year old man walked into a classroom at UCC and shot his writing instructor and --- 17 of his fellow students. Nine died. The violence has rocked the town of Roseburg.

Soon after the shooting at the college, Roseburg Mayor Larry Rich was doing one of the many things expected of him: talking to the press.

Rich:  “We need to grieve as a community. After that people need to come together start taking about the issue. And I hope that we’ll look at the entire picture. Don’t just focus on gun control. We’ve got mental health issues. We’ve got copy-cat issues.”

Copy-cat crime is just one of the reasons school shootings are no longer rare. A chronological list of school shootings in the U.S. shows there have been than 285 in the last 30 years. Victims never forget where and when it happened. But many people, including the President, fear Americans have grown accustomed to hearing about teachers and students being shot on school grounds.

Morrisette: "You know it was a horrific event. And it was one of the first in a long series of events."

Former Senator Bill Morrisette was the Mayor of Springfield in 1998 when a 15-year old student entered the cafeteria at Thurston High School and started shooting. 

KLCC Archival tape: "The Northwest Passage, This is Tripp Sommer. At least three people are dead and 24 injured after shootings today in Springfield today...."

It was later confirmed that he'd also shot and killed his parents.

Morrisette: "It was a shock. I knew Bill Kinkel, the father of Kip Kinkle. Bill was warned earlier about what he should do with Kip--not to allow him to get into the gun mania that he was in.

Morrisette says once he got through the initial shock of the news he quickly began working with city officials and law enforcement.

Morrisette: "The City Hall became the center of the dispersal of information--because we didn't want the reporters contacting the people, the families. So we had several news conferences during the day." (At one press conference, Morrisette likened future shooters to "tiny time bombs.")

Even 17 years after the violence at Thurston, Morrisette says every new school shooting brings it all back. The tragedy at UCC is no different.

Morrisette: "It's become common place. 'Oh, another shooting.' This is something that is going to go on and on and I'm not sure what the solution is. How do we put a stop to this-- what can we do to rein that in?'"

Soon after the Thurston shootings, President Bill Clinton came to Springfield to meet with victims and families. Morrisette says there were no protesters. He recalls the scene with Clinton in the school library.

Morrisette: "He went from table to table and took as much time as he needed to talk with people. He gave everybody at the table a hug and spent some time with them and then moved to the next table."

Seventeen years later, a different presidential visit elicited reactions from hundreds of people in Roseburg objecting to President Obama's political position on gun regulation. The Umpqua Community College shooting marks the 15th time Obama has addressed the nation after a mass shooting.

When Air Force One landed, Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy welcomed President Obama on his way to Roseburg—8 days after the shootings.  

Piercy:  “He's coming here as a president to this community that’s grieving and just wants to tell them how much he cares about them and wants to offer them solace."

Mayor Piercy doesn't have all the answers for how to prevent gun violence in her city, but she has taken some steps. She joined Mayors Against Illegal Guns years ago.

Piercy: "And there are mayors all over the country who belong to this. And this is the reasoned and reasonable position that we should do our utmost to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and out of the hands of children and out of the hands of those who don't have the mental capacity to use them safely."

Credit Tiffany Eckert
Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy.

Piercy says mayors are in a unique position to help change the conversation about gun regulations and gun violence.

Piercy: "What mayors can be very good about is bringing people from different perspectives together and to look out to where you want to be. And if we can get to a conversation about what we're willing to do, I think that's a game changer"

Former Springfield Mayor Bill Morrisette hopes the answer is in public awareness of recognizing and dealing with deviant behavior and receptive law-enforcement. 

In the days since the most recent Oregon school shooting, Roseburg's Mayor Larry Rich has continued to deal with the day to day business of running a town--even in the aftermath of such a terrible incident. Rich has attended funerals of victims and he expects to there will be programs to help residents who cannot get past the trauma. Mayor Rich has said he wants to take a broader look at the issue of gun violence--because there are lots of factors--not just "gun control."

Rich: "We need to look at the entire picture and figure out how we're going to stop this problem."

Leaders in cities across the country will be watching to see what Mayor Rich figures out. Meanwhile, the nation braces. Since the Roseburg tragedy on October 1st, there have been four more school shootings in the U.S.

Listen to KLCC archives from May 21, 1998. Just after news of the Thurston High School shootings, Alan Siporin opened KLCC phones lines and Oregonians called to talk about the tragedy.

Tiffany joined the KLCC News team in 2007. She studied journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia and worked in a variety of media including television, technical writing, photography and daily print news before moving to the Pacific Northwest.
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