In the wake of each American gun tragedy, politicians trot out well-rehearsed speeches that include prayers for the families and promises to double down on mental health care and gun violence. But the truth is, Congress and most Legislatures have done little to prevent this epidemic.
Blame partisan politics and well-funded lobbyists for stunting reform efforts and allowing common-sense gun bills to stall. This year’s state House Bill 2461, establishing protection orders to keep guns out of the picture when people are at extreme risk, never even made it to a committee vote.
In America, the majority of gun violence is self-inflicted. Two-thirds of gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides. Much of the remainder is inflicted by relatives or those close to the victim. I-1491 would create steps for police, family and household members to ask for a temporary suspension of firearm access when someone close to them is potentially suicidal or violent.
Connecticut, Texas and Indiana have similar laws, but family members in those states must go through law enforcement to petition a judge.
Presently in Washington, if a person indicates suicidal or violent ideations, little can be done to prevent him or her from obtaining a firearm legally.
No one knows this better than Marilyn Balcerak of Auburn, who lost her 23-year-old son and 21-year-old-stepdaughter to gun violence in June 2015. The young man went to his neighborhood Fred Meyer, purchased a firearm, and killed his stepsister and then himself.
These were preventable deaths. Balcerak’s son had mentioned suicide and was receiving care for ongoing depression. She went to police on several occasions asking how she could keep a gun from him. She was told it would require a restraining order or he would have to commit a felony.
She also could have requested indefinite, involuntary treatment for him. “Joel’s Law,” passed by the Legislature in 2015, created a legal process to send a loved one to a mental health facility. That may work for some families, but others would rather see their loved one forgo their gun access than their freedom of movement.
I-1491 won’t stop every suicide or murder, and the order is only temporary, preventing a person from buying or possessing guns for up to a year; but it will empower parents to intercept tragedies like the one Balcerak suffered.
Critics are concerned about the initiative’s wording, believing it could further stigmatize those with a mental health diagnosis and create an erroneous link between mass violence and mental illness. These critics are correct that most people with behavioral health issues are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. That’s why the onus is on the petitioner to show a preponderance of evidence that their loved one is a danger to himself or others.
Opponents of I-1491 cite the risk of hostile petitions motivated by vengeance. But since we already trust our judges to sort truth from fiction in domestic violence cases, how is this any different?
Some argue the measure is a slippery slope, a slow erosion of the Second Amendment. But there’s a Grand Canyon size space between a sensible public safety measure such as I-1491 and an apocryphal vision of an unarmed America.
In 2014, Washington voters approved Initiative 594 to finally close the “gun show loophole” and require background checks for all gun sales. The measure won with 60 percent of the vote.
Initiative 1491 deserves the same outcome.