An interview with Hazel Brown, the Policy and Advocacy Manager at Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, on restricting firearm access and providing support for gun violence survivors

By Joshua Choi, Masa Hanatate, and Nuranissa Sofia
University of Washington Bothell School of Business

Content warning: this piece discusses the mental health effects of firearms related violence.

Whilst we were anxiously waiting on Zoom, a warm welcome was heard with a large smile emanating our digital atmosphere. Sitting comfortably, wearing an orange tank top with a very short haircut and piercings on the nose and ear, they introduced themselves as Hazel Brown from the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility. Right behind them is a framed drawing that appears to be a canvas of black and white unusual shapes. When we asked them about the drawing, they explained that the painting was a gift from their uncle to their mother, celebrating their mother’s first born child, and those shapes are characters from children’s books: Where the Wild Things Are and Napoleon. On their left was a bookshelf, full of fantasy books from Hazel’s favorite series Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. They read to escape and recharge from the terrifying and stressful realities they encounter each day in their job.

Hazel works as a Policy and Advocacy Manager under the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility. And for Hazel, the rapid, record-breaking rise of gun violence is the main concern. In 2021, the US had experienced the most gun deaths recorded in history.  Time and time again, Brown and the Alliance capture the terrifying and tragic stories from survivors of tragedies, such as school shootings. In spite of their efforts, firearm sales spiked during the pandemic due to fear and uncertainty of social movements and civil unrest, which in turn increased homicides as well.

The Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility works to save lives and eliminate the harms caused by gun violence in every community through advocacy, education, and partnerships. In our interview with Hazel, we had the opportunity to get a deep dive on the ins and outs of what Hazel and the Alliance does, and what the Alliance truly believes in.

What does your day look like working as a Policy and Advocacy Manager?

HB: The policy and advocacy is kind of like the two worlds that I live in. On one hand, I am doing a lot of policy research. So, in the policy development stage, we’re thinking really critically with national partners with our lobbyists what we would like to do for the 2024 legislative session and a lot of the kind of grunt work which I love falls to me, so doing research on what other states are doing, what those laws look like in theory and practice, [and] how to make them the most effective laws possible. And then I can give all that research to our lobbyists and the people that actually write the draft. And once the law gets passed, I’m also doing a lot of work on the implementation side of that as well.

On the other side [of] the advocacy world, I run our field team […] [F]or endorsed candidates, every time, they need to show up to Olympia to advocate for a bill; that is my team. And they are very good at their job. We were able to get a hundred people at Olympia this year to show up for hearings at 5 in the morning.

Has your mental health changed while working under the Alliance for Gun Responsibility? How do you separate your leisure life from your work life?

HB: Not even necessarily related to work, but related to work alongside, existing in politics as a person who’s interested in politics generally […] A lot of us can agree for some in some way [that] there are a lot of things that are happening in the United States and globally that are pretty […] disheartening, especially if you get a lot of that content on your social media feeds, because that’s what you’re interested in or from your friends […] And so, really, setting aside.I found time intentionally for things like Frisbee[,] watching a TV show or movie that aren’t really heavily political, or […] even dystopian […].

Washington is [a] beautiful [state to spend] time in nature and [it is] really disconnecting from both work and social media ,[…] [which] has been really beneficial [for me]. And giving myself space, turn[ing] my phone off, and be[ing] present in the world around me, and remember[ing] that there is a lot more good than there is bad most of the time. And just really keeping that central is something that I’ve really prioritized.

When you say you have been better in that case, how have you been able to cope with that? Or do you feel like you’ve been able to stabilize your mental health while working?

HB: Yeah, I feel like [I have been] so cyclical […] And I think that there’s a term that I found online […] called “Doom scrolling”, where […] you just keep seeing bad stuff on the Internet and you just keep [scrolling on there]. And [you keep seeing] […] more things about how messed up the world is and you don’t stop because it’s what you’re doing, and it’s hard to get your brain to switch tasks.

But I’ve [been] taking time to check in with myself and [think], “Hey, can I handle additional information today? Is this relaxing me, or is it stressing me out?” […] Making sure that I’m checking in with myself because there definitely are times, especially when depending on what is happening at work, that I need to be a lot more intentional with my self-care versus […] if it’s been pretty normal at work or late. I think after you’ve all day when all of us were being so steeped in these stories of what happened at that elementary school. All of us on staff were like “Whoa! This is getting really dark. This is becoming really hard to just sit in for 8-9 hours a day.” And we really kind of talked as a team about how to intentionally disconnect and not be living that story for our entire work day [for] 5 days a week.

Do you think COVID has played a role in the increase in gun violence since the start of the pandemic?

HB: We have data for 2020 and 2021. And what we know about those years is that gun violence skyrocketed. It got worse. And part of that is [that] firearms sales increased. […] I think [there are] theories [on] why […] Every person who made that decision probably did it for a different reason. But a lot of people have hypothesized, with at least some grain of truth, that when people are scared and when there is a lot of uncertainty, people are really susceptible to marketing that says, “Hey, purchase this firearm. Defend your family, you will be safe. You will be able to […] increase your quality of life. This will make you safer […] This will help keep you stable” And that increase we saw especially in 2020, when the pandemic [and] the George Floyd protests were happening. [When] there was so much unrest, and there was so much uncertainty that I think people were really acting out of fear and acting out of a desire to feel like they could control something […]

Not only did gun violence go up, but homicides went up [as well…] I would imagine that the kind of gun violence that would thrive in the pandemic would be suicides to speak like very candid. But homicides went up more than suicides did, which was the most surprising thing to me and that happened 2 years in a row, both in 2020 and 2021.

According to the Columbia University department of psychiatry, 5% of mass shootings are linked to severe mental health issues, while another 25% is linked to some sort of other mental health issues, such as depression or substance abuse, total 30%, is there a reason why you think the public believes most of the mass shootings are linked to mental health issues?

HB: If mental health and gun violence were correlated, then every single country would have the same amount of gun violence that the United States does because most countries or most developed countries have similar levels of, you know, mental health crises as we do in the United States.

But the difference is not the mental health, the difference is the access to firearms. We know this to be true. And the reason why the public, I think, credits so much more gun violence to mental health problems and not access to firearms is because the gun lobby has done a very good job protecting their weapon and protecting what they are interested in, which is the access to firearms. They have done a very good job of connecting gun violence to mental health. So that is the alternative solution that people can offer. That is to protect the firearm from getting regulated or some kind of additional safeguards that could be put in place there.

So you see this as a lot of conservative talking points in response to a mass shooting. They will call for mental health services. And they will say that this is the solution. It wasn’t the firearm. It was that this person was depressed, or bipolar, or whatever, and we’ll use that as a scapegoat to not deal with the root of the problem, which is the fact that that person was able to buy a firearm and immediately go and commit violence with it, or take a firearm from their parents bedside table that wasn’t safely secured at all. The issue is a significant part that the person could get access to a firearm so quickly and easily and act on an impulse.

Do you find it reasonable to include one’s mental health as an additional parameter to carry a gun license?

HB: This is a really hard question because […] mental illness can look different in different people and can really manifest in different ways. I think I would know of no way to do this that would not be overly prescriptive and could potentially be used to to limit and discriminate against kind of access to firearms for kind of more marginalized or vulnerable communities […] I think there are a lot of tools that Washington has in place for people that are going through [a] mental health crisis, who either do own firearms or are thinking about owning firearms […] We would love the public to know more [about those tools].

So things like extremist protection orders can be a really good kind of in between to what you were talking about […] An extremist protection order is an order that a family member, loved one, roommate can file for someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis […] So it really gives [one] an opportunity to get the help you need and then be able to practice your right to carry a firearm once you are able to practice that right safely.

The other tool that Washington has is a voluntary waiver program which would allow someone to voluntarily waive their right to own a firearm so they would not pass a background check. And this has been something that people can use if they know that they have a history of mental health problems, and they know that they don’t want to ever own a firearm […] you can voluntarily waive your right to own a firearm. And then you would just never be able to purchase a firearm in Washington State. And that can be reversed as well […]

So there’s a couple of tools we have to kind of mitigate that. But a very long answer to your question. No.

On your website, it says it is a myth that gun violence is a mental health issue. If it’s not mental health issues, what do you think is causing the increase in school shootings and similar events?

HB: That is a million dollar question. […] I can give my best guess, and I think it, you know, again relates to as I was talking about earlier […] with the pandemic, you know we have so many more guns in our communities than we did 2 years ago. […] I think that that is in part why we’ve seen an increase in violence. I think that there also still is a lot of unrest that still […] hasn’t been resolved from the pandemic, and you know a lot of other kinds of social movements that are rising up. Now we’re seeing more strikes. […] We are seeing just a lot more ripple effects from the pandemic that haven’t been resolved yet, and I think that violence is part of that. […]

The amount of people living in poverty has increased. The amount of people that are homeless has increased, and, as I said, when people feel unsafe, unstable when they don’t know what’s happening next […] they are grasping for things that help them feel in control. And so I think that can be another reason. But you know, it’s such a variety of factors that there’s going to be no one. no one reason why we have seen that increase.

What has your experience been with mental health as it relates to survivors of gun violence. What have you seen, and what kind of support is available? How can we do better?

HB: [I]n general, I think survivors frequently have a lot of PTSD, especially the survivors that I work with, because they are the ones that are engaging in advocacy after either losing a sibling, a child, a parent to gun violence, or being in a crowd and getting fired at. These are all people that have been so close to the problem, and are choosing to relive that trauma, or choosing to share that trauma for the sake of education for the sake of advocacy.

[I]n 2018 and 2019, before we […] made it illegal to open[ly] carry firearms around [the] capital campus, we would bring our testifiers to Olympia, and they would need to walk through a crowd of AR15. [W]hen several of these people have lost loved ones to that exact weapon it was really hard for them. Those days were really hard, and they were important. […]  Everyone was […]  determined to be there [and] committed to the cause. But […] I think no one was happy to be there […] especially for [the] survivors […] [They] are opening [themselves] up to trauma every single time [they] are engaging in advocacy work and that is not something that can be overstated. […]  It can be very taxing on survivors’ mental health beyond […] the actual trauma of going through the event in the first place.

Many survivors […] don’t [want to] enter advocacy, and I feel like they’re so frequently as the expectation. As I was talking about with Uvalde, actually, so many of the parents after Uvalde, immediately got shoved into the spotlight and immediately got asked to go and testify in front of our United States Senate […] immediately. [They were told to] tell [their] story. Tell [their] story again. Tell [their] story again, with [only] weeks in between the most traumatic event of their lives. I think that if we don’t provide adequate trauma-informed care and rest [when] we are interacting with our survivors […] It can actually do more harm than good for their journey.

How do you encourage, or maybe make the survivors of these traumatic events feel comfortable enough for them to advocate?

HB: Great question. So […] the first thing that I will say is, I’m not a therapist, and no, I don’t have any kind of trauma-informed care, so the ways that I can support them are very limited […] I always want to be very upfront both with them, and with you, [with] the ways that I can support them, and those are by recognizing what I can do for them, and recognizing immediately what they may need […]

[T]he ways that I am able to […] interact with them and […] empower them to take action is by just providing different avenues for things they can do, and then understanding, if they say yes or no and supporting them through all of that. I’ll call survivors up, and I’ll say, “hello […] would you be comfortable testifying for, last year was our assault weapons bill, So would you be interested in testifying for our assault weapons bill […] I feel like your story would be really powerful” [and] if they say yes, then I always offer to read their testimony. I always provide template testimony and I just make sure to do all the logistical work for them […] So all they need to do is show up and they have testimony that they know is […] not only true to them, but aligns with what we’re trying to do so they know it’ll be as effective as possible.

I really try to be intentional. I’m friends with a lot of them. So obviously I will support them as a friend, but I can never provide a lot of that kind of health care, professional support, that I think, is also necessary for everyone that has experienced that kind of trauma.

How can others help contribute to your organization?

HB: I will steal my engagement director’s favorite quote, in that the ways that you can help is time, talent, and treasure. And so what that means is [to have] time [to] volunteer and engage with the process in several ways […] [With] talent, [it means that] any particular skill you have that you would like to volunteer or donate […] And then treasure, which is just giving us money which we appreciate […] The Alliance has a donation page and [is] always accepting donations, and we have fundraisers.

If you want to get on a mailing list they can be pretty fun. Our annual luncheon is always a pretty successful and engaging event, which is great, so at least you get a meal out of it before giving us some money, but I would just love to plug the lunch in then. In terms of volunteering, the Alliance does a variety of things throughout the year, [like] right now we are doing door knocking and community engagement events to promote our organization and gun violence prevention generally, but also our endorsed candidates for the municipal cycle. To make sure that we have local leaders in office who are kind of championing the issue of gun violence. But then volunteering also looks like calling up your State legislature legislator and saying, “Hello! We would love for you to vote on this bill.” […]

The thing that I really love about our volunteer program is you can give as much as you want, and you don’t need to give more in terms of your time. So if all you have time for is sending an email. We value that so much, and if you have time to drive down to spend a day in Olympia with us, we value that as well.

Having Hazel Brown in our class and learning about the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility and what Brown does in the organization brought us information about firearm restrictions that we have never heard of before and that would be insightful for anyone who has experienced gun violence or is thinking about owning a firearm in Washington state. The Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility works to save lives and eliminate the harms caused by gun violence in every community through advocacy, education, and partnerships. In our interview with Hazel, we had the opportunity to get a deep dive on the ins and outs of what Hazel and the Alliance does, and what the Alliance truly believes in.

If you are interested in volunteering for the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, please use this link to sign up. For mental health related resources and support, please contact NAMI Seattle.