A gun-safety group announced Thursday it is going back to voters after Washington state lawmakers failed to pass a bill creating extreme-risk protection orders that take guns from people who pose a serious risk of hurting themselves or others.
Marilyn Balcerak is convinced that had she been able to file for a court order to prevent her 23-year-old son — who was autistic, depressed and increasingly violent — from obtaining a gun, he and his stepsister would be alive today.
Last year, her son killed his stepsister, 21-year-old Brianna Smith, at their family home in Auburn before turning the gun, which he bought legally at Fred Meyer, on himself.
“My son, James, should never have been able to buy a gun,” said Balcerak. “I knew James better than anyone. I should have been able to keep him from getting a gun in his condition,” she said.
Balcerak and her partner, Matt Smith, were among an array of speakers at a news conference Thursday at Seattle Town Hall announcing an effort by the Alliance for Gun Responsibility to place an initiative on the state ballot this fall creating a new type of protection order.
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“Extreme-risk protection orders,” which are modeled after domestic-violence protection orders, would allow family members, partners and law-enforcement officers to ask a judge to suspend access to firearms for up to a year if a person is deemed to be at risk of violent behavior, Alliance Executive Director Renee Hopkins told the crowd.
According to the alliance, the language for the initiative would come from House Bill 2461, which got a hearing in the House this past year but stalled before it could get a vote on the House floor. Like domestic-violence protection orders, the petitioner would have to catalog for the court serious threats the respondent has made to harm themselves or others.
If the petition were granted after a court hearing, the protection order would prevent respondents from buying firearms legally and could require them to surrender firearms they already own.
“We watched in horror as five lives were snuffed out at Cafe Racer — the final victim lost her life not far from where we stand today — and then again as six were killed at the University of California Santa Barbara; and then again nine killed in (North) Charleston, South Carolina,” The Rev. Aaron Williams of Mount Zion Church said at the gathering Thursday. “Children, students, men and women at prayer, and on and on, too many tragedies to count.”
Williams said he believes God is on the side of those who seek to reduce gun violence, and he has faith in “a power greater and bigger than us that can bring about change in the face of opposition.”
Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole also spoke, saying, “There is no question we can do something about this.”
She said that family members and law-enforcement officers are often in the best position to know when a person poses a threat to themselves or others and that the extreme-risk protection order would be a valuable tool to give people time to get help.
“People who may harm themselves, harm those they love or harm first responders coming to their aid should not have easy access to firearms,” O’Toole said to applause.
Stephanie Ervin, the alliance’s campaign manager, said the initiative was written with input from judges and lawyers and has built-in protections for due process and penalties for those who would seek to maliciously restrict another person’s access to firearms.
She said the group, which was responsible for the law that closed the gun-show loophole, was “excited to be going back to the ballot.”
Dave Workman, of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms and member of the Second Amendment Foundation, said the penalties for abuse of the extreme-risk protection order, a misdemeanor charge, are too slight to dissuade a person bent on revenge. “I don’t know about how many times I have written about contentious divorces that involve child custody, child support and alimony that have gone south,” Workman said in a phone interview. “This is an open invitation for one side or the other to throw around accusations — “she’s a screwball and she threatened to shoot me” — and have somebody get their civil rights taken away for a year.”
Zoe Ann Moore, a member of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, lost her 27-year-old mentally ill daughter, Dana Monique Harvey, to suicide in 2010. Moore said she understands the Second Amendment concerns, but she asked opponents of the measure to “please, put your feet in my shoes. Let down your guard. We are losing our children.”
Like Balcerak, she said she’s convinced a tool like the extreme-risk protection order would have saved her child’s life.
“If extreme-risk protection orders had been law one year ago,” said Balcerak, “I believe Brianna and James would be alive, and I would have more time to get my son the help he needed.”