Guns or not, homicides are tragic for community

Olympia has experienced five homicides this year, the most since 2004, and more than the previous five years combined.

In fact, it’s not unusual for the capital city to go all year without a murder. That’s what happened in 2007, 2010 and 2011.

For reasons not completely understood, 2012 was a violent year in Olympia, including four homicides in the last three months of the year.

There is one common thread running through the murders. None of the homicides involved a gun. Three were stabbings, one was a severe physical beating and the charred remains of the fifth victim were found in an incinerator at a homeless camp.

The fact that guns were not involved in any of the killings is being used by some local gun rights voices as proof that people, not guns, kill people.

They are overreaching in their conclusions that homicides free of guns this year in Olympia is more than a statistical oddity. The fact remains that the areas of the country with the highest gun ownership rates have the highest rate of gun fatalities. In addition, as gun ownership in the United States has declined over the past 40 years, deaths due to assault have also declined.

There are some other details behind this year’s homicides that are worth noting. Five of the suspects arrested in four of the murders were described by police as transients, people who lacked a fixed address. Three of the suspects in two of the slayings were homeless people living on the streets, as were their victims.

Some of the suspects also appeared to be involved with meth and some also had history of mental illnesses.

None of this should be used to stereotype people: Most homeless people are nonviolent. Many mental illnesses don’t manifest themselves in violent acts.

But there has been anecdotal evidence in recent months, acknowledged by those who work with the homeless, that a criminal element is surfacing in the area’s homeless camps. They are newcomers to the Olympia area, and they are making Olympia’s homeless population fearful.

A case in point: Many of the teens and young adults that started camping outside City Hall this past year said they did so because they don’t feel safe in homeless camps in the woods.

Police and social workers suggest the spasm of violence in Olympia may have its roots in a number of societal issues. State budget cuts have led to early release of felons from prisons and jails and less supervision once they are released.

Mental health services in Olympia and other communities across the state are stretched too thin. Methamphetamine use continues to ruin lives.

Perhaps the five murders in Olympia this year can be explained away. But that doesn’t make them any easier to accept.