After Aaron Ybarra’s deadly assault at Seattle Pacific University in June, some wondered why the suicidal, psychotic 27-year-old was allowed to have a gun in the first place.
After all, Ybarra possessed a well-documented history of mental illness: homicidal fantasies, emergency-room visits for alcohol poisoning, two brief involuntary commitments and a professed admiration for one of the Columbine High School mass murderers.
As far back as 2010, he drunkenly summoned Mountlake Terrace police to his family home, saying he “had a rage inside him” and wanted to hurt others and himself, officers reported. At the time, he had access to a significant arsenal there, including a semi-automatic SKS rifle and a 30-round AK-47 assault-style rifle, police records show.
Despite all of the above, Ybarra and the weapons were perfectly legal in Washington state.
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He had never been involuntarily committed to a mental-health facility for at least 14 days, the time required by the state before adding someone’s name to the national database of people barred from possessing guns. Nor was Ybarra a felon, another disqualifying condition.
His case highlights the inadequacies of a background-check system that worked as designed but still resulted in tragedy. It also has restarted an election-year debate about whether the state is doing enough to keep weapons from those who are violent, dangerous and mentally ill.
Early database state
Washington was one of the earlier states to submit mental-health records to the FBI database used for firearms background checks, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The database’s mental-health records have nearly tripled in the past three years to 3.5 million in the database of 12.2 million names.
The state first submitted 47,000 names of the mentally ill to the database in 2003.
“It was, frankly, a controversial issue,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Nelson, who chaired the committee that analyzed Washington’s laws concerning mental health and gun ownership.
At the time, gun owners had to be involuntarily committed for at least 90 days before losing their gun rights. Then came the April 2007 mass shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech, where a deranged student gunman slaughtered 32 people and wounded 17 others, the nation’s worst mass killing by a single shooter.
During the 2008 legislative session in Olympia, state lawmakers tried but failed to make it harder for the mentally ill to possess guns. In 2009, they succeeded. A new law required that the names of persons with involuntary commitments of 14 days be submitted to the NICS database.
The bipartisan bill was sponsored by Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, an advocate for both gun safety and more capacity in facilities to treat those suffering from mental illness.
“Like most hard government problems, this is a balancing problem,” Hunter said. “… Very much in this state we err on the side of civil liberties for the person who’s being institutionalized.”
Rob McKenna, state attorney general in 2009, said the state chose the 14-day standard rather than the much more commonly used three-day emergency mental-health detention to protect people’s civil liberties to own guns.
In Washington, 14-day involuntary commitments must be ordered by a judge. The state Administrative Office of the Courts, which obtains information on those committed from its statewide network of local court dockets, then sends those names electronically at the end of each workday to the federal and state background-check databases. People can petition the court to have their privileges restored.
As of Nov. 30, 2013, Washington has submitted nearly 100,000 names to NICS, putting it in the top 10 of those states that submit such reports to the national background-check database, according to a May study by gun-safety organization Everytown.
Pennsylvania, which had been near the bottom, now leads the country, having submitted 676,968 records, the study shows — a rate of about 5,304 per 100,000 residents. Washington’s rate is 1,417 records per 100,000 residents.
Rounding out the top five states are New Jersey, Virginia, Delaware and California.
Since 1990, California has prohibited people who have been involuntarily held for three days or more from gun ownership for five years.
After an unstable 22-year-old gunman killed six students near the University of California, Santa Barbara, in May, California lawmakers introduced a bill that would create a gun-violence restraining order, in which family members or friends could ask a judge to restrain a dangerously unstable person from possessing guns. The measure would work much like a domestic-violence restraining order, with a judge making a decision after hearing testimony from both sides.
Similar laws exist in Connecticut, Indiana and Texas, but it’s not on the agenda for Washington gun-safety advocates.
A spokesman for Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility said the organization’s focus is on closing the gun-show loophole.
Ralph Fascitelli, board president at Washington CeaseFire, said the California bill is “absolutely brilliant” and that one here “obviously could’ve been helpful” in preventing the shootings at SPU and the 2012 Cafe Racer killings. But the priority this year is on passing a citizens’ initiative for universal background checks.
Far from foolproof
Despite such measures, the mentally ill who have been involuntarily committed can still purchase firearms because the background-check database is incomplete.
The NICS database was launched in November 1998 as a part of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. In the database are those barred from purchasing firearms: the involuntarily committed, felons, the dishonorably discharged, undocumented residents and people with domestic-violence convictions.
Federal law does not require states to submit mental-health commitments. Instead, it relies on the “cooperative effort” of federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies.
As a result, 10 states have no laws requiring mental-health records to be sent to to this database. Twelve have reported fewer than 100 names, according to records.
Rhode Island, as of November, had submitted no records because of strong state privacy laws. Under a new law, however, that state will submit names in 2015 of those involuntarily committed for 10 days or more.
“No one wants someone who has mental issues to have ownership of a gun who can do harm to themselves or to others,” said state Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, a co-sponsor of the new law.
But sometimes the name of someone who should be in the database never makes it. The most commonly cited example of this failure is the case of Seung-Hui Cho, the shooter at Virginia Tech. Cho had previously been committed to a mental facility against his will, but his status was never submitted to NICS by Virginia officials.
Cho passed the background check when he purchased his firearms.
Washington state submits mental-health records to the database at a higher rate than most states, but gun-safety advocates say a national system is only as good as its weakest parts.
“The only way that that’s going to work is if all the states participate in putting data into the federal database,” state Rep. Hunter said.
This concern was echoed nationally as a bipartisan U.S. House amendment was passed in late May to provide an addition $19.5 million toward helping states improve electronic infrastructure that would increase their submission numbers. The Senate has yet to act.
As of July, the FBI stated there were 3.5 million records classified as “adjudicated mental health,” or just under 30 percent of the total names in the NICS database.
Denials of gun sales for mental-health reasons account for 1.3 percent of federal denials since November 1998, according to the FBI.
The vast majority of denials are due to felons trying to buy firearms.
Easy to obtain
Despite Washington’s better record on submitting mental-health records to the national database, violent and disturbed people can still easily obtain a gun in the Evergreen State.
Like most other states, Washington allows people to buy firearms at gun shows or through the Internet without undergoing background checks. Only six states and Washington, D.C., have a universal background-check law, which requires all sellers to consult the instant background check database for all gun transfers. (These states are Connecticut, New York, Delaware, Colorado, California and Rhode Island.)
Four more states require background checks at gun shows (Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Oregon), but Maryland and Pennsylvania exempt long-gun sales from gun-show checks.
In Washington, Initiative 594 seeks to make Washington a universal-background-check state and will be on the November ballot.
Lawmakers here tried to close the gun-show loophole in early 2013, but the bipartisan bill, with more than three dozen sponsors, failed in committee by one vote.
Some of its backers, such as Margaret Heldring, a clinical psychologist in Seattle and president of Grandmothers Against Gun Violence, were spurred to action after a mentally ill 20-year-old man shot and killed 27 at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school in December 2012.
“In these really painful, high-profile mass shootings, we do see evidence that the shooters did have some degree of mental-health problems,” Heldring said. “Often, they’re people who entered the mental-health system at one point but the system failed them.
“We need to protect individuals, protect the community.”
Also on the November ballot is a competing measure, Initiative 591, which would stop the state from adopting universal background checks unless a similar federal law is passed first.
Alan Gottlieb, chairman of Protect Our Gun Rights Coalition, is working to pass 591. He says 594 is “unworkable.” Gottlieb said he is not opposed to universal background checks but is opposed to 594, saying it places an undue burden on private-party sales and is an unfunded mandate.
“The devil’s in the details,” Gottlieb said.
Hunter, the state representative who sponsored the bill that changed mental-health records reporting, originally ran for the state House on closing the so-called gun-show loophole.
“We want these people not to be able to purchase guns,” Hunter said. “And the only way to do that is to have a universal system of background.”