Gun Responsibility Bill Coming to Washington Ballots This November

SPD Chief Kathleen O'Toole speaking at the Town Hall event this afternoon.

SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole speaking at the Town Hall event this afternoon.

“We’re going back to the ballot,” announced Renee Hopkins, executive director of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility at Town Hall this afternoon. Hopkins, addressing a large, enthusiastic room full of supporters, said the Alliance was emboldened by their successful background check ballot initiative, which easily won the support of Washington voters despite NRA opposition. Thanks to that law, Hopkins said, the last year has seen “more than 6300 private sale background checks” in the state, and “118 ineligible sales have been blocked,” keeping guns out of the hands of people with criminal records.

Unfortunately, Hopkins said, Washington’s legislative body is not following the will of the people: “Despite overwhelming public support, some of our lawmakers caved to the gun lobby and created an overwhelming obstacle to sensible gun laws. The legislature in Olympia failed us this session.” Which means that the Alliance has to take the choice back to the people in November.

“We’re going back to the ballot for Extreme Risk Protection Orders,” Hopkins said, “to give families and law enforcement the tools they need to stop tragedies before they happen and keep guns away from people who are likely to hurt themselves and others.”

Modeled on pre-existing laws for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Protection Orders, Hopkins explained, Extreme Risk Protection Orders “allow family members and law enforcement officers…to ask a judge to temporarily suspend a person’s access to firearms if there is documented evidence of dangerous mental illness or a high risk of violent behavior.” She said that two of the worst mass shootings in Washington state history—the 2013 Cafe Racer shootings and the 2006 Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle shootings—could have been prevented had Extreme Risk Protection Orders been law. California already has a version of this law on the books, which passed after the 2014 Santa Barbara shootings.

Currently, Washingtonians can only be restricted from buying firearms if they have been committed for 14 days, a stringent standard that allows too many people to continue to endanger themselves and others. And it’s not as though these incidents happen without warning; Hopkins said that eighty percent of those who attempt suicide announce their intentions prior to an attempt. Extreme Risk Protection Orders provide people with the chance to help their loved ones before they do harm to themselves and others.

Hopkins was joined onstage by a large group of community leaders including Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, and City Attorney Pete Holmes. O’Toole said that the Seattle Police Department was on track to engage with 10,000 people this year in crisis interactions with the goal of “de-escalat[ing] a situation” and “work[ing] together with care providers to give people the services they need.”

“Policing goes well beyond law enforcement,” O’Toole said. “We all see the earliest warning signs that could lead to the next tragedy.” People who will do harm to themselves and others in their community, she said, should not have access to firearms.

Marilyn Balcerak, a citizen sponsor of the bill, told her story. Less than a year ago, Balcerak’s son, James, shot and killed his stepsister, Brianna, and then took his own life. Balcerak said James was a sweet young man who suffered from emotional problems. One night he became violent, threatening to commit suicide and pounding on the locked door of Balcerak’s bedroom.

“I called the police,” Balcerak said, “but he had calmed down by the time they arrived. I remember talking to the officers, asking if there was anything I could do to make sure that he didn’t have access to a gun. But under the current state of the law there was nothing I could do.”

Balcerak understood that trouble was coming, but there was nothing she could do about it. “I knew he could be dangerous, that he struggled with alcohol abuse, and that he was thinking and talking about suicide, but I was powerless to keep firearms out of his hands.” That’s why she’s sponsoring this bill now. “If Extreme Risk Protection Orders had been law one year ago, I believe Brianna and James would be alive.” With a sensible law on the books, she concluded, “I would have had more time to get my son the help he needed.”

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To learn more about the fight for gun responsibility in Washington state, and why it’s important for us to lead the nation on gun responsibility, here’s the second episode of The Other Washington, our policy podcast, featuring interviews with leaders from the local movement:

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.