Local Election

Campaign against gun violence stops in Bellingham

Marilyn Balcerak, left, whose son shot and killed his sister and himself, speaks while Liz Hjelmsworth of Bellingham listens at a news conference in support of Initiative 1491, sponsored by the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, at Broadway Park in Bellingham on Monday, Sept. 19, 2016.
Marilyn Balcerak, left, whose son shot and killed his sister and himself, speaks while Liz Hjelmsworth of Bellingham listens at a news conference in support of Initiative 1491, sponsored by the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, at Broadway Park in Bellingham on Monday, Sept. 19, 2016. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Supporters of a measure they say would reduce gun violence told poignant personal stories at a news conference Monday, Sept. 19, backing state Initiative 1491, which would allow courts to prevent people judged dangerously violent from having access to firearms.

Five speakers, all with connections to Northwest Washington, huddled in a late-morning drizzle at Broadway Park during an event organized by the Alliance for Gun Responsibility.

It’s part of a statewide series of events near the site of firearm deaths. Tawnia Costan, 39, was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend Daniel Salas, 55, outside a home on J Street near Broadway Park in 2010. Salas turned the gun on himself as police closed in.

“This issue is deeply close to me,” said retired professional football player Riall Johnson, who said he has seen friends suffering from traumatic brain injury and depression who had access to firearms and killed themselves in a moment of distress.

Johnson, who attended school in Everett and has family in Bellingham, is field director of the Yes on I-1491 campaign. He said he has become a community activist since retiring after a nine-year career as a linebacker with the Cincinnati Bengals of the NFL and several Canadian Football League teams.

“This thing happens to good people, people you look up to,” Johnson said. “(Access to a firearm) was just too easy. There should be a way to prevent that.”

According to a PBS “Frontline” report, former Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson killed himself in 2011 with a gunshot to the chest, hoping his brain could be studied. Degenerative brain disease has been found in dozens of former NFL players.

Marilyn Balcerak of Issaquah, a citizen sponsor of the measure, spoke of how she tried unsuccessfully to prevent her autistic son from carrying out his increasingly violent threats. Under current law, she said she would have had to file for a temporary restraining order and hope that her son violated its provisions before authorities could keep him from possessing a gun.

“His texts became more and more bizarre,” Balcerak said. “I did everything I could to keep him from getting a gun. My only option was to distance myself from him at the time that he needed me the most. (But) he killed his stepsister and I was powerless to stop it.”

Balcerak’s son also killed himself, and their 2015 deaths in Auburn drove her to activism.

“Many people after mass shootings and suicide say that there were warning signs,” Balcerak said. “We want to remove the most lethal means. (I-1491) isn’t meant to be just a stopgap. It’s also for treatment” because the measure requires a court to consider a mental health evaluation.

Balcerak, Johnson and other speakers implored voters to approve I-1491, which would allow family members or law officers to seek an “extreme risk protection order,” or ERPO, from a court to confiscate weapons or prevent gun ownership by someone in extreme mental distress.

A statewide Elway Poll showed 64 percent of registered Washington state voters in favor, with 18 percent against and 18 percent undecided, according to an Aug. 18 report in the Spokesman-Review newspaper.

Initiative 1491 is opposed by the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, criticizing the bill for what it says is vague language regarding who can petition for an ERPO. A court must still decide whether such an order should be issued.

Bills introduced in both houses of the state Legislature failed in recent sessions.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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