Three years ago, tragedy struck at Seattle’s Café Racer, shining a spotlight on the difficult interrelationship between easy access to firearms and the ravages of mental illness. Unfortunately, the Café Racer shooting was neither the first nor last time family members of a shooter have shared the pain and anxiety of trying to seek help for a loved one whom they feared would slip into violence without treatment—and without a tool to keep guns out of their hands.
Thankfully, policy tools have been developed that can help. A proposal for “Extreme Risk Protection Orders” empowers families and law enforcement with the opportunity to intervene with people who are threatening to harm themselves and others. Under current Washington State law, many of those behaviors may not be enough to allow authorities to take preventive action.
Extreme Risk Protection Orders can address this potentially tragic problem by enabling family members, as well as law enforcement officials, to obtain a protection order to temporarily remove access to firearms when an individual is threatening to commit terrible harm. Those are people like Naveed Haq, who shot Cheryl in a politically-motivated attack on the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle in 2006, and Walt’s son, Ian Stawicki, who killed himself and five others at Cafe Racer three years ago today. Both Naveed and Ian showed signs of distress and of their intentions, just like over half of all mass shooters over the last 20 years.
The tragedies that ruptured our lives—the attack on Cafe Racer three years ago and on the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle in 2006—led us to become advocates for strengthening Washington’s gun laws. We’ve pursued different paths in the years since we became survivors. But we both support Extreme Risk Protection Orders because those shootings might never have occurred if family members had this path to intervene. Unfortunately, the Extreme Risk Protection Orders bill stalled in Olympia this year due to political pressure from an old foe—the National Rifle Association and their legislative allies.
Thankfully, we aren’t alone in our desire to see this reform passed, nor are we giving up. At an inspiring—and often somber—legislative hearing earlier this year, witness after witness shared stories about deaths that might have been prevented if families had the tools to act. Zoe Moore described how police were unable to do anything to help prevent her daughter’s suicide. Jane Weiss and Sarah Whitford recalled their loved one, Veronika Weiss, a Seattle native who was killed in the UC Santa Barbara shooting last year (prompting California to quickly adopt a similar protection order law). Thousands of Washingtonians made phone calls, sent e-mails, and signed nearly 11,000 petitions telling their legislators to support Extreme Risk Protection Orders.
We know that nothing will stop every shooting or every suicide. But just as background checks are one part of the solution, Extreme Risk Protection Orders work hand-in-hand with increasing access to and funding for mental health services so that individuals in distress get the help they need.
Unfortunately, politicians in Olympia allowed Extreme Risk Protection Orders to die this year because of the gun lobby’s “general philosophical opposition” to keeping firearms out of the hands of disturbed individuals. It’s a position out of step with Washington voters—and common sense.
Sadly, the cost of inaction is measured in real lives. During Naveed Haq’s second trial, his father shared his experience of anguish and helplessness as his son’s anger and paranoia became more pronounced. Similarly, those who knew and loved Ian Stawicki saw his personality change and devolve, but were tragically unable to get—or force—him to surrender his firearms. There aren’t words to describe the devastation gun violence creates in families and communities. And the actions of a few elected officials mean we’ve lost an opportunity to prevent another violent event that could shatter a community and bring another family’s worst fears to life.
We stand today with survivors, families, friends, mental health and domestic violence advocates, law enforcement and the 60 percent of Washingtonians from every political party and walk of life who voted for stronger gun violence protection laws. Together, we call on Olympia to take concrete steps to prevent gun violence in our state. We are always ready to work with the legislature to find common ground.
Let’s not let another anniversary of the Café Racer shooting—or any tragedy—pass yet again without taking action to save lives.
Cheryl Stumbo is a survivor of the 2006 shooting at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and the citizen-sponsor of last year's Initiative 594. Walt Stawicki is the father of Ian Stawicki, who killed five people in the 2012 Cafe Racer shooting before taking his own life.