Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Vestal: Can a modest proposal to keep guns from troubled family members pass? An initiative aims to find out

Volunteers for I-1491, a gun control initiative, stack cartons of signed petitions into a makeshift podium Thursday outside the state elections office to announce they were turning in 330,000 signatures. The measure will need slightly less than 247,000 valid signatures to make the November ballot. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

When Washington voters passed Initiative 594 in 2014, we became the first state to require background checks for all gun sales.

The sky didn’t fall. Scores of gun sales to unqualified buyers have been blocked in the two years since. So far as I know, no good-hearted, God-fearing gun owner has been prosecuted for lending a shotgun to their nephew to shoot his family’s supper, as initiative opponents predicted.

It was a small, good thing. Was it also a template for defeating the gun lobby’s ludicrous, paranoid grip on this country’s legislative bodies?

Gun-control proponents sure think so, and we’ve now got a test case in I-1491, a proposal that would allow families and police to ask a court to temporarily suspend a person’s access to guns if there is documented evidence of threatening behavior.

How well I-1491 fares with voters this fall may tell us whether we’re at the tip of a wave – where modest proposals to make the country safer are no longer DOA – or whether I-594 was a lone splash.

And then we’ll get another important indicator when the Legislature convenes next year, with Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s proposal to ban assault weapons and limit magazine sizes.

Between the people and the politicians, though, it’s no secret who will be more likely to act.

“We’re living in an era of legislative dysfunction, which means we really need to take things back to the people,” said Stephanie Ervin, campaign manager for Yes on 1491. “We’re on the cutting edge of gun violence prevention.”

Perhaps. But I-1491 may face a stiffer test than its predecessor. Universal background checks, after all, have been enormously popular with Americans of all stripes; polling has even shown large majorities of National Rifle Association members support them. It’s not clear whether protection orders have the same broad support. And even if they do, they will be more subject than usual to the sandbagging that gun zealots hurl at every single proposal: They’re coming to take your guns!

Surely you see the problem here. Somebody’s gun could be taken away. Sure, those somebodies would be people who were determined by a court to have posed a severe risk of harm to themselves or others, based on threats, past convictions, reckless behavior, the testimony of family and police, and other factors. Perhaps this seems prudent to you, even wise. Possibly you are persuaded by the family members of people who have killed themselves and others, the people who repeatedly talk about the many warning signs they had and the impossibly few tools they had to respond to them.

But there is no practical middle ground with guns. The paid mouthpieces of gun makers oppose every single gun-safety proposition as if it were the apocalypse. If somebody’s gun could be taken away, everyone’s gun will be taken away. They’re coming to take your guns!

This is the unexaggerated view of those who will oppose this initiative. How do we know? Because, just as with universal background checks, I-1491 began as a legislative proposal, and the gun lobby weighed in.

Last March in Olympia, the NRA’s Brian Judy said, “We’ve been hearing for two years from the proponents of Initiative 594 that they don’t want to take away guns. However, we have this bill now before us that creates a new process with one goal: to take away guns.”

Dana Day of the American Rights Movement testified, “It is abundantly clear that the true purpose of (the bill) is to remove guns and attack gun rights.”

At this point, confiscation paranoia must be considered an outright enemy of public safety. I’m not talking about gun owners, generally; I mean the hardcore mind-readers who are convinced their opponents are playing a devious long game that ends with the disarmament of decent Americans.

Proponents of the initiative are focusing on the orders as a strategy for reducing suicides. They released information this week from a Duke study that found Connecticut had seen a drop in gun suicides after it adopted the protection orders. They noted that Washington’s rates of gun ownership and suicide are higher than Connecticut’s and said the orders could save lives here. Of Washington’s 702 gun deaths in 2014, 551 were suicides.

People can commit suicide in other ways, of course, but no other method is as quick or effective; research has shown that even the presence of a gun raises the risk of suicide.

Among those who have spoken up in support of the so-called extreme risk protection orders are people who have family members who have killed themselves after showing a pattern of dangerous behavior, and who say they had no tools to prevent it. One example is Seattle’s Marilyn Balcerak, who has been an outspoken proponent of I-1491.

Balcerak’s son killed himself and his stepsister last June after a protracted struggle with depression, suicidal thoughts and violence. His family attempted to intervene in many different ways, with therapists and police, but they had no legal method for preventing him from obtaining a weapon.

“If extreme risk protection orders had been law one year ago, I believe my son and stepdaughter would be alive,” she said.

Protection orders might be one way to help prevent other kinds of gun violence, such as mass shootings. Mass shootings have increased in recent years, even as the overall murder rate has dropped, and they present a series of unusual circumstances involving gun access, threat screening, copycatting and social media. They are often carefully planned – meaning there are warning signs.

The magazine Mother Jones, in a piece this week, looked at 74 cases where Columbine copycats plotted similar attacks; police were able to identify warning signs and stop 53 such plots before anyone was harmed. In the 21 plots that were carried out, 89 people were killed, 126 injured and nine of the shooters killed themselves.

Might extreme risk protection orders be one more hurdle between the plotting and the shooting? It’s hard to see a reason – a real one, anyway – that we wouldn’t try.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.