An editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times has concluded that our tragedy might not have happened down there. What does California do that we don't? And should we import it here?

Share story

Could Ian Stawicki have been stopped?

A week after this man believed to be mentally ill shot and killed five people, the consensus answer around Seattle seems to be: probably not.

His guns were legal. He had no criminal convictions. He was never committed for mental-health treatment. So what could have stopped him?

An editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times has concluded, provocatively to say the least, that our tragedy might not have happened down there.

“It’s notable that in California, he (Stawicki) probably wouldn’t have been legally allowed to walk around armed in public,” wrote the L.A. Times’ Dan Turner.

Why not? Because they have more gun control.

Now before we all go ballistic with our usual arsenal of arguments, the L.A. Times conceded crimes like this can happen anywhere. If Stawicki had been barred from owning guns, he could have gotten them illegally, the way most murderers do.

But setting aside the obvious — that laws can be broken — what does California do that we don’t? And should we import it here?

The L.A. Times points out what most everyone in Seattle is thinking. Here’s a guy with a history of violence and mental problems. His own family says he was mentally ill. Given all that, “is this the kind of guy who’d make a good candidate for a concealed-weapons permit?” the paper asked.

We gave him one anyway, most recently in August 2010. That was after he had been charged, but not convicted, in two domestic-violence incidents (one in 2008 and one in March 2010). If he’d been convicted he wouldn’t have qualified for the permit. Because he wasn’t convicted, authorities here have virtually no discretion.

We are a “shall issue” state, meaning if you meet the basic criteria, you get the permit even if police think you are a danger to the public.

“The state’s bar is so low that even a character like Stawicki could slither under it,” Turner wrote about us (though I think he meant slither over it.)

Down there, though, city or county officials can ask you why you want a gun. They can interview you or your family about your fitness to own a gun. In some cities, they can do background checks so extensive they include psychological testing.

This is invasive, no doubt. But as Turner points out, any of these techniques might have uncovered that “Stawicki was missing several marbles.”

He went on to call our state’s gun-permitting practices “irresponsible.”

Setting aside the irony of being lectured by Los Angeles on anything related to public safety, Stawicki’s case seems to me to be more complex than the Los Angeles Times allows.

How can you bar even a slitherer from exercising a constitutional right when he was never convicted of any crimes?

Yes, his family felt he was off the rails. But we don’t let the hearsay testimony of your estranged family dictate your rights. And who would referee this dicey decision, anyway — the sheriff’s office granting the gun permit?

But I do think the L.A. Times has one big good point. It’s awfully easy to get a gun permit up here.

Remember the guy last week who was jogging with his gun, allegedly for his own safety, right next to a Seattle school? Just as the police were on a manhunt for a guy with a gun?

Insane, right? That jogger had a permit, too.

I have always wondered why we don’t regulate guns at least as vigorously as we do cars. You should have to take tests, written and operating, to get a license to own one.

This wouldn’t stop gun crimes either (it doesn’t stop reckless driving). But it would be a signal that we take guns more seriously than we do now.

In time — decades, maybe — a scheme that raises the bar for legal gun ownership might give police more tools to root out the illegal guns. For someone unstable like Stawicki, or irresponsible like the jogger, it might become incrementally tougher to get or keep a gun.

That’s admittedly a lot of mights and maybes for a newspaper column. But one thing that’s clear about this case is it eludes answers. Especially easy ones.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.