California’s Unity Dinner tackles the rise of gun violence in America

Ritu Jha

At the Unity Dinner held on April 21 in Milpitas, California by the Jeevan Zutshi-led Indo-American Community Federation, Jeff Rosen, the Santa Clara County District Attorney, had a special message for immigrants, especially with regards to law and order.

“I would just say to immigrants in the United States that the police here are really there to help you. They’re not corrupt, they’re not on the take. They don’t care what your immigration status is. If you call the police and say, I’m afraid that my neighbor is going to kill me or someone else, the police will respond.”

A special panel at the Unity Dinner discussed ‘The Rise in Gun Violence and the Impact on our Youth’, and Rosen made his remarks during this sessioṇ.

“Owning a gun is a serious responsibility,” he said. “The truth is that people who lawfully own guns are honestly more at risk of getting involved in incidents like suicide or shooting. They and their family can become more prone to such violent incidents because of the gun they own. My experience has been that guns don’t make difficult or heated situations better; they make them worse.”

Rosen spoke to indica, and indicated that he is he is working on a statewide initiative on gun violence. “We want to introduce an initiative to reduce gun violence. Inform lawful gun owners about the safe storage of guns, mental health services, and restraining orders. We need to provide information to gun owners to try to reduce incidents of harm, because when it comes to firearms, there are more suicides than homicides in our community,” he said.

The second aspect of the effort is to provide more services to victims of gun violence. “We have found that when we don’t treat the physical, mental, and emotional suffering that people have when they’re a victim of gun violence, they are more at risk to become a perpetrator in the future.”

He added, “And finally, this initiative uses technology to help us solve gun crimes faster. Basically, what I would call using DNA for bullets and firearms to be able to let the police solve crimes more quickly.”

About awareness programs in elementary schools to coach students on safety measures, Rosen said: “I’m hoping we can get to a point where we don’t have to teach school students what to do when there’s a shooter in the premises. It’s traumatizing. I hope mass shootings become rare. We’ve had more mass shootings in the US than days of the year. It’s almost like an illness, and we need to find a way to reduce its severity if not outright eliminate it.”

He said California has red flag laws to remove guns from the hands of people that are threatening to kill themselves or others. “But laws are only as good as people knowing them and calling the police when they see a neighbor or a friend or a co-worker talking about hurting or killing themselves. Some people don’t want to get involved. I want to assure everyone they can remain completely anonymous and that’s why they should let the police know at the right time.”

He said he acknowledges the fear among immigrants to become a whistleblower. “About 40% of our county people were not born in the United States. But my experience, particularly with the Indian American community is that, it’s a dynamic and well-educated community that wants to do the right thing, that wants to succeed, that wants to be involved. I think it’s a community that can be very helpful to law enforcement in reducing violence.”

City of Fremont Councilmember Teresa Keng spoke about gun violence her city has witnessed. “Two years ago, a two-year-old Fremont boy was hit by a stray bullet on Highway 880. A couple of weeks ago, another child was hit on Highway 880. That’s a huge concern for our community, especially if suspects of violent crimes are not prosecuted,” Keng told indica.

Keng said mental health issues have been impacting the youth. She said that while the Fremont Unified School District have the Youth Mental Health Program which is being funded by Alameda County, City of Fremont, and Fremont schools, there is no long-term funding.

“The program is a success, but it came after a lot of our young people faced mental health crises over the years,” Keng said.

Since the program began last July, 14,000 students in Fremont public schools, have reached out for help. “Earlier, several schools shared one psychologist and psych-evaluation was conducted occasionally. But it was not adequate. The new program is comprehensive. We have already given more than 1400 free therapy sessions. A lot of these students would not be getting therapies otherwise.”

She added that how the 2023 California mass shootings – one in Los Angeles, and one in Half Moon Bay – shocked the community. “We thought Asians are model citizens and this will not happen here. But mental health and gun violence issues are affecting everyone. Everyone needs to make sure that people around us are getting support and know that we have laws to protect our citizens.”

Keng acknowledges that many sections of the community are not even aware of the program and how there is an urgent need to spread awareness. “We need to make sure that more students know about the program,” she said.

Alex Lee, California Assembly Member (24th District), told indica, “California remains the model state for gun violence prevention. Unfortunately, other states around us have not embraced this. We are trying to always do our best to keep firearms away from those people who are not eligible to have guns – those with criminal records, and people who are mentally ill.”

He said: “The sad thing about America is that almost anyone with $500 can walk up to a Walmart and buy a rifle. That’s the case even in California. If you have $500, don’t have a conviction on record, or aren’t flagged in the system, you wait 10 days and spend 500 bucks to purchase a rifle. This country makes it easy and affordable to get weapons of war, as compared to getting mental health treatment. Buying a car is way more difficult than buying a gun. There are good, valid reasons for owning guns, but that does not mean it should be easy.”

On the rising hate crimes against Asians, Lee said, “We are working on tackling hate crimes. I actually work with the Asian American pockets to spread awareness on the issue. The biggest goal to combat hatred is understanding love.”

He said when people “understand us better and don’t see us as strangers it’s much less likely they can demonize us.” An important task for him is to advocate immigration reform, he said, especially for green card holders. A lot of Asian immigrants come here but the immigration norms are part of a very punitive system right now that really restricts the flow of immigrants from all over the world,”

Jeevan Zutshi said the panel on gun violence was the idea of Anjali Shaykher Zutshi, the moderator. “She told me that it is an important topic, and her eight-year-old daughter Shyla has been asking similar questions especially about the rise in the violence.”

Anjali told indica that the rise in violence is a result of several factors. First, due to the pandemic and prolific use of social media, we’re seeing an unprecedented increase in mental health issues, resulting in frustration, anxiety, and isolation. Politically, the country is divided.

However, these conditions exist in other nations as well, so what makes America different? “The unfettered access to weapons,” she said. “Without strict policies and regulations, our country will continue to be in crisis, with senseless loss of lives. Other measures to control the violence start at the community level- building bridges to eliminate divides across communities and spreading compassion to those struggling with mental health, focusing on rehabilitating violent offenders, and having tough conversations with our youth at an early age so that the future generations are prepared to see the signs of a potential actor and reach out to authorities to prevent future attacks.”

Psychologist Harmesh Kumar, PhD, said it is important to recognize the importance of mental health. He said in his experience, experts can notice behavioral patterns in a perpetrator. “Most of the time, family members are aware of the individual’s issues and have an inkling that they are going to do something,” he said. “A Majority of those perpetrating mass shootings either tell their friends or a family member; 60 to 90 percent of them have told family members or loved ones. Sometimes they even post it on social media. Second, many of them are suicidal. They become very, very disruptive in their behavior. Recognizing this is important.”

Desrie Campbell, city of Fremont Councilmember, blamed social media as well as the pandemic and family values. She said sitting behind a computer impacts students on their ability to develop social skills, and it adds to their anxiety.

“We know Covid impacted our children’s mental health. But we also see the physical demands, and families play a big role particularly here in the Bay Area where it’s very, very expensive,” Campbell said.

Fish Stark, head of program & curriculum at Ever Scouts, too, believes social media has a role to play in mental health issues in young people. He said he has seen a spike in cases since 2012. “The reason is that, it was in 2012 when most American kids started to get smartphones and got on social media. Number two, after Sandy Hook, the ‘Active Shooter Drill’ became part of kids’ lives in schools. What’s happening in a kid’s mind in a world where gun violence in their classroom might be an immediate reality?”

Ragini Vecham, founder and CEO of BotSprint, echoed this thought. “We’re doing a lot of work in educating and supporting our kids, but social media, and the companies who control social media, should step in and help educate our kids. Turn off those videos that constantly show brutal shootings, or ones that constantly talk about shooting. Ask what else can we educate our kids with? Or how do we help? What tools can we get them? Can we come up with games that could help them develop their mental health?”

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