Marilyn Balcerak

Voice | Family Safety | Issues

Initiative 1491: How One Small Change Could Have Saved My Family

This November, give families the tool they need to help prevent gun violence

June 7, 2015 was the worst day of my life. My son James shot and killed himself and his step-sister Brianna. I should have been able to prevent it.

Brianna was a bright and bubbly 21-year-old. She was popular, quick to smile and generous to a fault. She could strike up a conversation with anyone on the street, just like they were an old friend.

James should never have been able to purchase a gun. I, the person who knew him best, should have had some way to prevent him.

My son James was a little different. He was a smart, independent young man. He wanted to be a nurse anesthetist. He started therapy at age 5. When he was 7 years old, he was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. We saw every doctor and specialist we could find, tried every treatment. His personal struggles overwhelmed him over time and he experience periods of depression. As a mother, it’s heartbreaking to watch your son struggle and know there’s little you can do to help. While it’s not typical for everyone diagnosed with autism or depression, in the last years of his life he became violent, verbally abusive and experienced suicidal ideation.

When he was younger, I could make sure he went to counseling, ensure he spent time practicing how to recognize social cues and monitor how his medications affected him. I could help him with school assignments and projects. I could ease his path. When he became an adult, it was more difficult. I researched doctors and therapists, gave him names and phone numbers, but I could not make his appointments for him.

The situation came to a head the summer before he died. It began with an argument one evening. I suggested we talk in the morning when everyone was more calm. I went upstairs to get ready for bed and asked James to do the same. Instead, he followed me up the stairs and began pounding on the outside of my door, begging me for permission to end his life. He asked over and over again, “Yes or no, can I kill myself? Yes or no?”

We called 911, which is one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. By the time police arrived, James had calmed down. That night marked a turning point for me. I asked the officers if there was anything I could do for James. I was desperate for any tools that could help our family. I asked the officers what I could do.

"How can I keep him away from dangerous weapons? Are there programs that can help?"

“No,” I was told.

I had two options: Secure a restraining order, which would cut off all contact between us, or wait until he committed a felony crime.

Either option would have destroyed my son’s life. I was his only advocate and his link to love and family. I couldn’t even imagine what would happen if I cut off contact.

I had two options: Secure a restraining order, which would cut off all contact between us, or wait until he committed a felony crime. Either option would have destroyed my son’s life.

I never imagined that James would hurt me or anyone in our family, but I worried that he was capable of violence. After the shooting at Isla Vista, I remember thinking: That could have been my son. I went back to the police, a different department in our new hometown. But, once again I was told that there was nothing I could do.

We were terrified. I did everything I could. After talking to our psychiatrist and therapist, they recommended separating our households for the sake of protecting our family. So, my partner Matt, Brianna’s father, and I moved out of our home. James stayed. We wanted him to have a sense of stability. I called and texted him constantly and met with him often, but we never told James our new address.

June 7 was supposed to be a nice day. I planned to have lunch with James and then go golfing with Matt. But, James never arrived at the restaurant we'd agreed to meet at. He somehow found our address and went to our house.

James shot Brianna in her bed. He shot himself 20 minutes later. To this day I’m not sure what went through his mind during that time, or if James fully understood that Brianna wouldn’t somehow wake up — until, of course, she didn’t.

James should never have been able to purchase a gun. I, the person who knew him best, should have had some way to prevent him. He bought his gun legally at our local Fred Meyer — the same store where I had taught him to shop, to say "hello" to the clerks, to smile at other customers.

This November, Washington State will vote on Initiative 1491, Extreme Risk Protection Orders, which will allow family members and law enforcement to petition a court to suspend at-risk individuals' access to firearms for up to one year. If approved, it will provide every parent and family in our state a new tool to help prevent senseless tragedies.

I have joined with the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, the organization that in 2014 helped ensure that every gun sale in Washington State will be subject to a background check, to help pass this vital ballot initiative. More than half of mass shooters displayed signs of mental health problems prior to taking action, according to a recent investigation into public mass shootings over a 30-year period. More than 80 percent of people who died by suicide showed signs of their intentions prior. A tool like Extreme Risk Protection Orders could have made a difference.

Extreme Risk Protection Orders are modeled after our state’s well-established system of domestic violence protection orders and laws enacted in California in the aftermath of the tragic shootings in Isla Vista. More simply, Initiative 1491 is a vital tool to empower families in crisis and has a proven legal precedent that protects due process and second amendment rights.

No mother should ever again feel powerless when she sees warning signs of violence in her own home. No father should be left defenseless in the face of looming gun violence. No family should ever have to experience what mine has.

Please join me and the Alliance for Gun Responsibility in supporting Initiative 1491 this November.

Learn more about Extreme Risk Protection Orders and Initiative 1491

The Alliance for Gun Responsibility 

Read Initiative 1491 

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal ideation, find resources here. 

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