Questions arise about booze, guns at parks
August 17, 2010
By Warren Kagarise
Alcohol might be factor in Lake Sammamish State Park shootings
The morning after a lethal shootout at Lake Sammamish State Park last month, King County Sheriff Sue Rahr surveyed the scene: paper plates, paper towels, red Dixie cups and beer cans spread across wooden tables, spent cartridges littering the ground.
The picnic provisions had been left untouched since gunshots ripped through the summer night. The shootings left a Kent man and a Seattle man dead, and injured three other people.
The sheriff met with state parks officials four days after the July 17 shootings, and raised concerns about the amount of alcohol allowed in the family-friendly setting.
Though a motive has remained elusive in the month since the gun battle, investigators believe alcohol might have been a factor in the shootout. In the meantime, the incident has raised questions about booze and firearms in parks — a cocktail that has the potential for dangerous side effects.
“That’s not a good mix, whether you’re in a park or at home or out hunting or out camping somewhere,” Lake Sammamish Park Manager Rich Benson said.
The shootings also stoked a debate about firearms laws and the presence of guns in parks.
Washington allows firearms in state parks, as long as the owner obeys gun regulations and park rules. Discharging a firearm is prohibited in state parks.
The only person charged in connection to the gun battle, Renton resident David Keowongphet, faces a first-degree unlawful weapons possession charge. Keowongphet — in custody at the King County Jail on $500,000 bail — is due in court Aug. 18 for a case-setting hearing.
“The bottom line is, controls don’t work,” Joe Waldron, chief lobbyist for the Washington State Rifle & Pistol Association and Washington Arms Collectors, said last week. “The bad guys, like the ones at Lake Sammamish State Park, would still have guns.”
Washington CeaseFire Executive Director Michael Wolfe disputes the assessment offered by the gun-rights lobbyist. The organization advocates for stronger gun-control measures.
“As much as the other side says guns don’t kill people and that people kill people, well, guns kill people,” he said. “In this situation at Lake Sammamish, if nobody had had a gun, it would have been a fistfight.”
Sandy Mealing, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, said the incident did not make Lake Sammamish State Park any less safe.
“People have to understand that these types of unfortunate incidents can happen anywhere,” she said.
Ban proposal stokes ire
Booze has caused problems at Lake Sammamish and other regional parks in the past.
Rangers at the Issaquah park used to fight a substantial underage drinking problem, Benson recalled. The problem subsided after the park banned beer kegs, and as the clientele changed to include more families and community groups.
King County closed Flaming Geyser Natural Area in southwestern King County for a weekend in July 2006 after partying led to parkgoers trashing the recreation area along the Green River.
“Anytime you have alcohol outside and you congregate a lot of people there, you tend to have problems,” King County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. John Urquhart said.
The state and county limit alcohol consumption in parks to designated picnic areas. The rule is tailored to allow parkgoers to sip beers at a cookout.
“People can’t be wandering in the park with an open bottle of beer,” Mealing said.
Issaquah has banned alcohol in city parks. Issaquah Police Chief Paul Ayers said the agency handles alcohol-related incidents on a case-by-case basis.
“We might have isolated incidents here and there, but it’s few and far between that somebody calls them in and it leads to a complaint,” he said.
The shootout at Lake Sammamish occurred as rival groups picnicked about 200 feet apart near the lakeshore. Members from both groups traded insults and fisticuffs at about 9 p.m. Then, shots rang out across the crowded park.
Wolfe said parks should be made into firearms-free zones. Seattle attempted to ban guns in some municipal parks last October, but a King County Superior Court judge struck down the ban in February.
“There’s certainly a public debate that needs to happen about whether parks are a place where guns should be,” Wolfe said.
But Waldron, the gun-rights lobbyist, said state legislators seem unlikely to take up the debate during the next session, scheduled for early 2011. Stricter gun control has become a nonstarter for Democrats, he said, especially as the party has made inroads in rural areas.
“Historically, gun-free zones have exactly the opposite of the intended effect,” Waldron said, adding that the areas restrict law-abiding citizens and create multiple targets for criminals.
Wolfe acknowledged the uphill battle gun-control supporters face in Olympia.
“Until people start seeing gun violence as a daily threat, nothing will change,” he said.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.