Marilyn Balcerak says she knew her 23-year-old son was in crisis before he shot and killed himself and his step-sister on June 7, 2015. Her son, James, was autistic, she says, and his socialization issues exacerbated his suicidal depression.
Balcerak tried to keep her son from obtaining a gun when she believed he was in crisis, and she says she even spoke to police officers about the issue twice. "The only option they gave me was to distance myself from my son when he needed that support most," she says.
Today, Balcerak told reporters that she believes her son and step-daughter would still be alive if something called Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) were law in Washington State. Balcerak spoke during a conference call in which backers of a state ballot initiative to create these kinds of protection orders presented evidence that a similar law in Connecticut has saved dozens of lives.
But first, a brief rundown of what Initiative 1491, and an ERPO, actually is:
• An ERPO, known elsewhere as a "gun violence restraining order," is a court process that allows a person's family members, intimate partners, former intimate partners (if they have a child together), legal guardians, housemates, and law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily prevent a person in crisis from owning or buying guns.
• In order to grant an ERPO, according to the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, a judge would consider evidence like, "recent acts or threats of violence against self or others, patterns of violence in the past year, convictions of domestic violence, prior unlawful or reckless use of firearms, and violations of protection orders or no-contact orders."
In 1999, Connecticut passed something similar to an ERPO called a "risk-warrant" law, which allowed law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from people "when there is probable cause to believe they are at a significant risk of harm to self or others." According to a report on the efficacy of that policy published today by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, Connecticut issued 762 risk-warrants over 14 years. During those 14 years, police found firearms on 99 percent of the risk-warrant subjects, and an average of seven guns per person. Of the group that had their firearms temporarily taken away, 21 committed suicide—a suicide rate 40 times higher than the general population.
Researcher Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, a Duke University professor in psychiatry and behavioral science, then estimated that for every completed suicide in the sample, there are multiple more attempted suicides; by their math, the 21 completed suicides indicate that there were 142 attempted suicides—attempts that would likely have been lethal if firearms were available. Based on a model derived from that data, Swanson and his researchers estimated that for every 10 to 20 risk-warrants, one life is saved. In Connecticut, that translates to 38 to 76 people who were issued risk-warrants.
"When you think about Washington, how would that work—Washington has a much higher firearms ownership rate," Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, said. "It also has a higher suicide rate. I think the results when you temporarily remove firearms from someone in crisis as an ERPO does, you should see a similar or greater benefit."
In addition to preventing suicide, gun safety advocates say ERPOs could better protect victims of domestic violence. As Heidi noted in her piece on the relationship between toxic masculinity and gun violence, allowing family, law enforcement, and intimate partners to cite specific threatening behaviors as reason to temporarily remove someone's guns could help prevent intimate partner homicides.
One concern around ERPOs, however, has come from civil liberties and mental health awareness advocates who worry that connecting language around mental illness to gun violence in law would create more stigma for people with mental illness and barriers to seeking treatment. The National Alliance on Mental Illness Washington, which supported legislative efforts to create ERPOs, has taken a neutral position on I-1491, citing concerns around one piece of language in the filed initiative. I-1491 states that a judge may consider "dangerous mental health issues" of the respondent as grounds for issuing an ERPO.
To Lauren Simonds, executive director of NAMI Washington, making the legal language about an unspecific mental health diagnosis, rather than crisis behaviors, reinforces false public perceptions about mental health diagnoses and gun violence—particularly when people with mental illness diagnoses are far more likely to be victims of gun violence, rather than perpetrators.
"But we are not opposed to this [ballot measure]," Simonds said. "We understand the intent of this bill is a good one." She added that she hopes NAMI WA would have the opportunity to refine the language with the Alliance for Gun Responsibility were the ballot measure to pass.
According to the research on the Connecticut law, about a third of risk-warrant respondents were able to get some treatment as a result of the court process. "It's really not about mental illness; it's about people in crisis," Stephanie Ervin, campaign manager for Yes on 1491, said.