Wash. Gun Initiative Aims To Keep Guns Away From People Who Would Harm Themselves Or Others

Oct 4, 2016

Keeping guns out of the hands of people who are a danger to themselves or others is the goal of Washington Initiative 1491 on the ballot this election. But opponents worry it will further stigmatize mental illness.

One Mother's Story

On a June day in 2015, Marilyn Balcerak faced what no mother should ever have to. She and her husband, Matt, were about to go out golfing when she went to wake up her stepdaughter, Brianna.

“So I walked up the stairs and I opened up her door and she was lying on the floor with blood on her bed and on the wall. I screamed for Matt and I just knew she was dead,” Balcerak said.

When her husband got to the room, he discovered Balcerak's 23-year-old son, James, also lying on the floor dead with a gun on his chest. James had apparently killed Brianna.

“He had shot Brianna in the head while she slept and then he had shot himself," Balcerak said.

Warning Signs

Before the murder suicide, Balcerak says she knew her son was troubled; he’d threatened to kill himself before. She says she had tried desperately to keep him from legally possessing a gun, but was told by the police and the courts there was little they could do.

Balcerak is the citizen sponsor of I-1491.

What The Initiative Would Do

Initiative 1491 would allow concerned family members, police and others to go to court and quickly obtain an extreme risk protection order. That would allow for the person in crisis to be temporarily prevented from possessing a firearm. Balcerak says, in her son’s case, it would have made all the difference.

“This would have given me the tool to keep the gun out of his hand," she said.

Opponents Say I-1491 Sends Wrong Message About Mental Illness

People opposed to Initiative 1491 say, even if well intentioned, passing such a law will reinforce a misperception about people living with mental illness.

Mental health advocate David Combs says he’s concerned the initiative allows a gun to be taken away from someone because they are exhibiting mental illness.

”There’s just this association when I talk with people that go, 'Oh, let’s get rid of the crazy people and that will solve our problems,' and I think that’s a false belief and one that I’m very concerned continues to be perpetrated,” Combs said.

Concern About Due Process

Combs, who has bipolar disorder, worries about the rights of people like himself. The initiative, he says, is too broad and would allow even roommates to petition to have someone’s right to own a gun temporarily taken away.

“So there’s a lot of concern about due process and the low bar as far as what needs to be required in order to execute the order,” Combs said.

Proponents insist there are enough due process protections in place for people suffering from mental illness pointing out that no matter who petitions the court, a judge still has to decide each case individually.