Downtown shooting causes city commissioner to talk about … panhandlers; are city leaders ready to tackle gun issues?

On a recent Sunday morning, there were pools of blood on the sidewalks of Massachusetts Street for all to see. That didn’t exactly make for the best dinner conversation at a Junior Achievement gala I attended on Wednesday.

But it did spark an interesting comment. It came from a community leader who told me she was surprised there weren’t more serious discussions in the wake of the downtown shooting that left three dead and two injured.

Come to find out, she was more right than I knew. About that same time, candidates for the Lawrence City Commission were participating in a forum for Downtown Lawrence Inc. There, you could find a community leader working hard to change the subject.

All candidates were asked a question about last week’s mass shooting and whether downtown needs more police presence. City Commissioner Matthew Herbert, who is seeking re-election, gave a thoughtful answer in some regards. He expressed sorrow over the tragedy, and perhaps correctly noted that more police officers in downtown likely wouldn’t have prevented the shootings.

Quite a few police officers were already downtown. They were so close to the shootings that no one had to call in the incident. Police officers heard the shots and came running.

But instead of explaining what he thought the community ought to be doing to prevent such tragedies, he did what politicians sometimes do. He pivoted. He pivoted to . . . panhandlers.

“Where we need our police presence is during the day,” Herbert said. “The biggest impact to downtown business owners is not happening at 1:40 in the morning. The biggest impact to downtown business owners is happening at 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon when everyday shoppers are feeling uncomfortable going into your storefronts because three or four people are sitting outside your front door begging for money.”

He did tell the crowd what Lawrence ought not to be doing.

“What we need to make sure we are not doing is killing downtown with the presence of police,” he said.

Somebody in the crowd — largely composed of downtown business owners — booed him at that point.

But perhaps the most important comments Herbert made were these:

“The events that happened Saturday evening/Sunday morning are, of course, awful,” Herbert said. “But I think we need to be very careful that we are not making decisions that legislate from a place of fear. If we as a City Commission are legislating from a worst-case scenario, I think we are making a huge mistake.”

Those comments should create a question for all of us: What makes us think this is a worst-case scenario? Why would we think this is a one-off incident — or an outlier, as Herbert also labeled it — to never be repeated?

For those who have been paying attention to crime news, plenty of red flags have gone up in downtown Lawrence just in the past three months. On Sept. 3, multiple gunshots were fired in the public right-of-way at 10th and Vermont streets in downtown. Two parked vehicles were damaged, but thankfully no people were in the way of those particular bullets. On July 17, two gun incidents occurred in downtown in one evening. A man inside Leroy’s Tavern revealed a gun as part of a fight that began in the bar. In a separate incident, a man at 10th and New Hampshire pulled a gun on a bystander. In the New Hampshire incident, the gun was a pellet gun. The perpetrator was a transient, so perhaps he didn’t have the money to buy a bigger one.

Look a bit outside of downtown, and you can find even more red flags. On Sept. 23, a man was apparently shot near Playerz sports bar near 19th and Haskell, although much about that shooting remains a mystery. It is not to be confused though with a previous shooting in the Playerz parking lot. That occurred in 2016, but the man was recently sentenced. He received a year’s probation and gets to keep his job at . . . a bar.

On Sept. 3, one man was killed and two others were wounded in a shooting incident at the Motel 6 in North Lawrence. On Aug. 11, a man was charged for attempted murder when he shot at an occupied car in the 3300 block of Iowa Street. I could list more.

There is a theme to all of those incidents: gun play in public spaces. It would seem that the chances of an innocent bystander getting shot in Lawrence are greater than we would care to admit. Why would we think such a thing wouldn’t happen in downtown, our most public and crowded of spaces?

Granted, coming up with solutions is not easy. But there are plenty of issues Lawrence leaders could be talking about. Here are four:

Are we doing enough to tell the public that we don’t want them to bring their guns downtown? I recently walked Massachusetts Street and looked at the front door of every business. I found only 11 businesses with a no-gun sign. Only one of them was a bar, The Red Lyon. Most of the other drinking establishments just off Mass didn’t have them either, with The Sandbar being an exception. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the bars have policies against guns, but for whatever reason, they are not putting the sign up. They should. The first step to stopping bad behavior is making it clear that you want it to stop. Lawrence needs to be very clear about this message: Guns and alcohol don’t mix.

Should the city issue security guidelines — or perhaps even regulations — for drinking establishments? Some places, like the Granada, use a metal detector wand to screen their patrons at the door. But there are many bars that don’t; they just rely on the doorman’s eye. You may be noting at this point that the recent shootings did not take place inside a bar. True, but it also is important to recognize that people in downtown past midnight most likely were brought there by a desire to visit a drinking establishment.

Should Lawrence police change their tactics? Perhaps undercover Lawrence police officers should periodically work the doors of a few establishments. Do the police department and bars communicate well enough when a patron does have a gun? While Kansas law makes it exceedingly easy to legally carry a concealed weapon, you still must be 21 or older to do so. Plus, people with certain convictions aren’t allowed to carry either. Is there a system in place to check gun-toters to make sure they are meeting those requirements?

Can Lawrence effectively lead a lobbying effort for common-sense changes to gun laws? While concealed carry isn’t likely to go away anytime soon, could there be some modifications? Do lawmakers really think it is a good idea for people to be able to go into a bar, drink to excess and carry a gun? What’s the penalty if they do?

Or, we could talk more about panhandling. Indeed, it may be an issue worth discussing. But first, let’s clean the blood off the sidewalks.