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Originally published May 31, 2012 at 4:30 PM | Page modified May 31, 2012 at 5:07 PM

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Seattle shootings: the power of a community reaching out to troubled teens

After this week's deadly shootings in Seattle, Lynne K. Varner underscores community organizations trying to keep young people on a positive path as the best insurance we have to keeping the public safe.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

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Seattle is a city on edge, our nerves rubbed raw by a recent eruption of gun violence.

The tragic shootings on Wednesday and outbreaks of street violence the week before are incomprehensible because of their randomness. One deadly theme exists: people angry and mentally unhinged enough to try and settle their issues with a gun.

The man who police say killed five people on Wednesday before turning the gun on himself was angry. His brother told The Seattle Times: "Nothing good is going to come with that much anger inside of you."

What about the emotional state of those firing the bullets in Madrona that caught a father of two in the crossfire last week? Or the guy who thought it was OK to fire bullets across Seattle Center, hitting an innocent bystander? Or the shooter of the young woman killed in Pioneer Square last month. What about the countless gunfights that don't make the news because blood doesn't flow?

Something is off with people who resolve differences with a weapon. Psychology books are full of early warning signs for those who may become violent. And we know the earlier the intervention, the more successful.

We have models to learn from: community organizations trying to keep young people on a positive path, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the best insurance we have to keeping the public safe.

The 4C Coalition, which stands for Clergy, Community, Children and Youth Coalition, has since 1999 offered one-on-one mentoring to troubled teens.

Young people are referred by juvenile court judges, child-welfare workers and school counselors. Of the 136 young people who come through the 4C's door each year, each one reported knowing someone, usually more than one person, who died a violent death.

Many of the kids lost their parents to prison or drugs. Some live on the streets or with grandparents too old and overwhelmed to counter the lure of gangs.

"More and more of the kids being referred to us have mental-health issues," says the coalition's director, Hazel Cameron.

Some suffer from mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress from short childhoods long on neglect and abuse. Cameron spent decades working with troubled youth, including as a counselor at Echo Glen Children's Center, a state facility for troubled children. There, she spent much of her time dispensing medication. After those kids left detention, Cameron often wondered whether they took their meds or had the health insurance to pay for them.

I'm not saying that the 4C Coalition is all that stands between Seattle and a generation of gang bangers or killers. But I'm drawn to the coalition's focus on mentoring because I don't believe all the heightened gun laws and aggravated criminal sentences in the world have the potential to do as much as one adult reaching out to help one troubled kid.

Cameron's view is shaped from personal as well as professional experience.

In 1998, when Cameron's 17-year-old son was a smart, popular kid attending the well-respected Lake Washington High School, he went to a senior-class party. Cameron's son was at the party just 40 minutes before being hit in the head with a beer mug. A month and a half later he collapsed from a massive brain bleed and languished in a coma for five years. He died days before his 23rd birthday.

The perpetrators were charged with manslaughter and received wide-ranging punishments. One served his detention on weekends and attended college during the week, Cameron recalls. Another was sent into alcohol treatment.

Cameron could still be raging against the parents who raised their kids to be violent. She could be a fixture in the guns-or-no-guns debate or in the call to get tougher on crime. But she went on to help launch the 4C Coalition because she knew something we're all discovering right now: The problem is not the weapons. It is the people using them with ease and without conscience.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Email: Find her on Twitter @lkvarner.

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