Initiative 1491 was crafted to fill a gap in Washington’s broken mental health system, and help keep people deemed a danger to themselves or others from possessing and acquiring firearms.
Among its strongest supporters are families who have been torn apart because they lacked legal options when they saw signs that a loved one was heading toward a breakdown, yet were powerless to prevent them from buying or keeping guns.
We think I-1491 provides a tool to help with that dilemma.
Currently, the only way guns can be taken away from people experiencing a mental-health crisis is to have them involuntarily committed for 14 days or more for treatment. In other instances, guns can be taken away from people as part of domestic violence protection orders.
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But there have been a number of cases where circumstances require more immediate action or a different approach, and setting up Extreme Risk Protection Orders — which is what this initiative would do — can provide that.
It allows families and police to petition a court to suspend a person’s access to guns for one year if there is documented evidence that they are mentally unstable and are threatening to harm themselves or others.
One of the most vocal backers of the initiative is Marilyn Balcerak, whose adult son fatally shot his sister and himself in Auburn last year. Balcerak said her son dealt with mental health issues most of his life, and she knew he was considering harming himself. She also was worried he was capable of violence.
Balcerak said she sought help, and felt like she had done everything she could to help her son and protect her family. She asked police how she could keep him away from dangerous weapons and was told she could get a restraining order.
However, she did not accept the suggestion because it would have cut off contact with her son, and she knew he needed her.
In the end, he legally bought a gun and tragically used it. Now Balcerak is left mourning two children and fighting to give other parents a legal option she did not have available to her.
Opponents of I-1491 include gun rights groups who dislike any proposal they think chips away at the Second Amendment. The National Rifle Association, in particular, said the initiative is “ripe for abuse” and targets gun owners instead of preventing crime.
The idea that this proposal potentially would be misused by people with an ax to grind is not as likely as it being used by families who truly need this legal route to help a loved one.
In addition, we believe there are enough safeguards and limitations in the proposal — including a judge’s discretion — that will help weed out possible abuse.
California, Indiana and Connecticut have enacted similar laws for similar reasons, so Washington is not a test case.
We recognize that initiatives generally are not a good way to make policy. They lack the important fine-tuning that typically comes from the legislative process.
But until major improvements can be made to our state’s mental health services, advocates are trying to piece together separate laws that can provide families new avenues of hope they didn’t have before.
This initiative is one of them.
The Tri-City Herald recommends approval of I-1491, Extreme Risk Protection Orders.
Look for our recommendations Thursday on state initiatives I-735, I-1464 and I-1501.