Marilyn Balcerak feared her son James might someday kill himself — and she tried in many ways to get him help.
But before the 23-year-old turned a Beretta pistol on himself in June 2015, James fatally shot his stepsister, 21-year-old Brianna Smith, at the family’s home in Auburn.
In a note he left behind, James cited his difficulty fitting into the world due to autism. Over the years, the family tried to help him through therapy, psychiatrists and medication for depression and anxiety, Balcerak said.
James flourished in a special-education program in high school and found solace in playing piano and hiking. But in the years after graduation, he struggled.
Never miss a local story.
The deaths left Balcerak and her partner, Matt Smith, wrestling with a devastating thought: Could they have done anything more to prevent the loss of two young lives?
The question anchored Balcerak and Smith’s quest to help pass Initiative 1491, which appears on the November election ballot.
Known as the extreme risk protection order initiative, it would allow family members, law-enforcement officers and others to ask a judge to keep firearms out of the hands of someone deemed a danger to themselves or others.
“Could James have come after Brianna with a knife?” said Balcerak, the 60-year-old citizen sponsor of I-1491 who now lives with Smith in Bonney Lake. “Yes, you could, but you have a fighting chance. A gun is instantaneous.”
A handful of states have similar regulations — supporters point to laws in California, Connecticut and Indiana. But the idea is gaining steam among gun-safety advocates seeking to counter shootings, domestic violence and suicides.
The I-1491 campaign comes two years after Washington voters approved an initiative expanding gun-purchase background checks. The Alliance for Gun Responsibility, which has run both campaigns, is again relying on the same cadre of well-heeled contributors for this year’s measure.
Donors supporting the I-1491 campaign include venture capitalist Nick Hanauer ($650,000), former Microsoft CEO and current Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer ($500,000) and Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen ($250,000).
Everytown for Gun Safety, the advocacy group spearheaded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has donated more than $500,000. All told, the I-1491 campaign has raised nearly $3.7 million.
Gun-rights supporters criticize I-1491, saying the proposal is vaguely worded and leaves Second Amendment rights open to abuse by the legal system.
But I-1491 has drawn little organized opposition.
It’s a striking contrast with 2014, when the National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Foundation spent nearly $2 million in an attempt to defeat I-594, the background-check expansion measure, and pass a counter-initiative.
The Alliance for Gun Responsibility and Everytown for Gun Safety spent more than five times as much promoting I-594. In November that year, I-594 passed by a roughly 19-point margin; voters rejected the gun-rights counter-initiative.
Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation in Bellevue, said it makes more sense to try to overturn I-1491 after it becomes law, through a challenge in the courts or through the Legislature.
“It’s not worth spending millions of dollars when the other side is going to spend a fortune,” said Gottlieb. He added later: “We’ll let the other side spend their money on 1491 and we’ll spend our money on the legislative races.”
What I-1491 would do
James Balcerak had intelligence and ambition — he wanted to become a nurse anesthesiologist, his mother said — but battled frustration over how to navigate social cues.
Marilyn Balcerak remembers her calls and questions as she watched him struggle: One time, she dialed a suicide hotline asking for advice about her son. Another time, she called a hospital to ask about getting James committed.
In July 2014, she and James got into an argument, after which he mentioned suicide. Marilyn called 911, she said, and when officers responded, she asked about how she could keep weapons away from James.
An officer recommended a protection order, which, if James violated, could have kept weapons away from him. But at that time, a protection order would have meant throwing James out of their house.
“I couldn’t do that,” Marilyn said.
Records show James bought the handgun at a retail store that October.
I-1491 would allow family or household members, people in a dating relationship or law-enforcement officers to petition a court if the person in question poses a “significant danger of causing personal injury to self or others” by having, purchasing or receiving a firearm.
A court would hold a hearing to determine whether that person is at risk. The court could act quickly in certain circumstances to order removal of firearms before a hearing is held. In those instances, a hearing must be held within 14 days.
The extreme risk protection order could be in force for up to one year. An individual could appeal to get firearms back once during that time, and the petitioners could also ask for an extension of the protection order.
In an attempt to prevent abuse of the measure, I-1491 also makes it a gross misdemeanor to file an extreme risk protection order falsely, or for the purpose of harassing someone.
I-1491 began as a bill before the Legislature, where lawmakers generally fear the controversy of advancing almost any kind of gun legislation.
House Bill 2461 never got a committee vote in the 2016 legislative session, much less a vote before the Democrat-controlled House or the Republican-controlled Senate.
A legislative analysis projected that about 870 extreme risk protection orders would be issued annually.
A recent study by gun-safety advocates on a similar law in Connecticut estimated it likely saved lives by keeping firearms away from people who would have used them in suicides.
But gun-rights supporters contend the language in I-1491 is too broad and could be abused by someone wanting to unfairly deprive another person of his or her right to have a gun.
The National Rifle Association, which didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story, last month posted its arguments against I-1491 online.
It contended the initiative would allow courts to make subjective decisions on the fundamental rights of gun owners and argued that language defining who can file such a protection order was too broad. In the initiative text, “ ‘Household member’ is vaguely defined as to even allow roommates from a year ago to petition to remove your Second Amendment rights when they don’t even live with you anymore,” the NRA said.
It also criticized the part of the initiative allowing weapons to be taken before a hearing is held, arguing that, “A person’s rights disappear merely on the say-so of someone else.”
Paul Melanson, police chief of Farmington, Connecticut, a state that recently enacted a law that in some instances requires a person to hand over firearms without first getting a hearing, acknowledged those concerns.
But, “our hope is that they (the courts) would be able to sort that out and ferret that out, rather quickly,” Melanson said.