Armed and mentally ill

Commentary: The real driver of random gun violence? It's not the weapon. And there are ways to address it.
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Mental health improvements could help with random violence.

Commentary: The real driver of random gun violence? It's not the weapon. And there are ways to address it.

Is there common ground for supporters of gun rights and gun control to stop random, senseless shootings in this country? Perhaps.

Hours after the awful shooting at Seattle Pacific University, Mayor Ed Murray appeared on campus and said, “Once again the epidemic of gun violence has come to Seattle — the epidemic of gun violence that is haunting this nation.” Other politicians, activists and liberal clergy echoed his words.

It will surprise the mayor and many other people to learn that gun violence isn’t rising in America, it’s falling. In fact, it’s plummeting. Gun deaths are down nearly 40 percent in the last 20 years, despite an increase in population and a rise in gun ownership. The Bureau of Justice Statistics points out an even more dramatic number: Non-fatal gun crimes free-fell 69 percent during that same period.

But mass shootings have increased. Depending on how you define them (attempted vs. actual), they have doubled or tripled in the last decade. Why are random shootings with multiple casualties up while overall “gun violence” is way down?

Let’s broaden our focus.

Last September Troy Wolff, a popular English professor at Shoreline Community College, was fatally stabbed in Pioneer Square while leaving a Seattle Sounders game. His girlfriend, Kristen Ito, was also stabbed multiple times and critically injured. The man police say is responsible for the crime, Donnell Jackson, didn’t know either victim. It was a random attack.

Earlier in the year, two men were stabbed on a Metro bus, one critically, by someone they didn’t know. Prosecutors charged the man, Douglas Carter, with two counts of first degree assault. Another random attack.

The previous year, Ian Stawicki shot and killed five people, including four at Café Racer, north of the University of Washington. He took his own life as officers closed in on him.

In 2010, two men were brutally murdered in broad daylight with a hatchet by Michael LaRosa, who was charged with murder in the separate International District and Capitol Hill attacks.

Each attack was unprovoked, inexplicable and brutal. Sometimes the weapon was a gun, sometimes a knife, sometimes a hatchet. To focus on the weapon misses the point: The thread tying these crimes together is the severe mental illness of the attacker.

In the Seattle Pacific University shooting, accused gunman Aaron Ybarra had what The Seattle Times called “multiple encounters with the mental-health system.” He once called 911, saying he “was suicidal and had a rage inside him.” He insisted that the voice of Columbine killer Eric Harris was telling him to kill people. Twice there were attempts to have him committed.

But mental health authorities concluded that Ybarra was “not detainable.”

The alleged Pioneer Square stabber, Donnell Jackson, had been committed to a California mental hospital after being found incompetent to stand trial for trying to start a fire near a freeway onramp. At the time, the California judge said that he “requires treatment with anti-psychotic drugs” but that he was lacking in the capacity to take them as required. He ended up moving here.

Douglas Carter, who attacked the two men he didn’t know on the Metro bus, had previously attacked a nurse with a chair at Western State Hospital, where he was being treated for mental illness. She was battered so badly that she suffered a seizure. He previously choked another nurse on the psychiatric ward. Carter had been convicted in 1991 of child rape.

Café Racer shooter Ian Stawicki was a time bomb waiting to go off. According to his father, he struggled as a child before drifting through a series of low-level jobs as an adult. His offbeat behavior grew increasingly erratic, then dangerous. He physically attacked his girlfriend, then later his brother, but in both cases was charged with misdemeanor assault, so he kept his guns. Overcome with delusion, he began telling people he was on a CIA death squad. In retrospect his dad wishes he had tried to get him committed. Given Washington’s high bar for mental health confinement, it may not have mattered.

Michael LaRosa committed his hatchet murders while he was a client of Seattle’s mental health court.

When Mayor Murray unveiled his strategy to combat gun violence, he mentioned mental illness as one of many contributing factors and called for more funding. But further subsidizing the existing system won’t solve the problem. It simply gives you a more expensive status quo.

This is about more than money. It’s about the standard required for committing someone who is seriously mentally ill, often at the urging of desperate family members. The bar is set higher here than virtually any other state in the country.

And for every incident of inexplicable, horrifying violence toward strangers, there are many more where the mentally ill hurt themselves.

Jake Stanton, a popular 19-year-old student at Western Washington University, was wracked with voices telling him to hurt himself. His mom, Jacquie, a nurse with 25 years’ experience, thought she knew how to navigate the health system, but she was shocked by what she encountered. The family doctor recommended a counselor. She knew Jake couldn’t get medication without seeing a psychiatrist, but he couldn’t see one without seeing a counselor, and there was a two-month wait. Meds were eventually prescribed, to no avail. Five times the Stantons took their son to the ER, where he could be held for a few days when he was in danger of hurting himself. In early May he came home from a night class, chatted with his dad, went to his room, and killed himself. “He wasn’t getting help, and they wouldn’t keep him and give him help,” Jacquie told The Morning News Tribune in Tacoma.

Last July, Seattle police shot and killed 28-year-old Joel Reuter on the balcony of his Capitol Hill condo. They didn’t really have a choice. Reuter, a brilliant but bipolar software engineer, was armed and thought he was shooting at zombies, according to The Seattle Times.  The police, understandably, thought he was shooting at them.

When Reuter lived in Arizona, his family was able to get him committed on two occasions, which they say kept him from killing himself. In that state, and many others, someone can be involuntarily committed for up to two weeks or longer if their condition made them “persistently and acutely disabled”, a high, but attainable standard.

Here in Washington, someone has to be in “imminent” danger of hurting themselves or someone else, a bar set so high that it makes the chances of commitment extremely remote. At one point his father, Doug Reuter, asked what it would take to get his son committed for treatment. He was told that Joel would need to have a loaded gun in his hand with his finger on the trigger. By the time he met that standard he was well on his way to dying.

If we had the Arizona standard in Washington, his father said, “Joel would be alive today and back at work.” A former state legislator from Minnesota, Doug Reuter declared at his son’s funeral that he would lobby to change Washington’s law to spare other parents their anguish. He and his wife, Nancy, actually moved here to try and convinced Olympia to change the law. The Legislature wouldn’t pass even a watered down version of the reform the Reuters had pursued. Washington is one of five states that won’t even allow family members to petition a court to have a fellow family member committed.

Two weeks ago, a deranged 33-year-old man, Jonathan Whitehead, suddenly stopped his speeding truck on I-5’s Ship Canal Bridge during rush hour. He set the truck on fire using a crude bomb, got out with a can of green paint, and began spraying the pavement and other cars. People called 911 and reported a man on I-5 going “crazy.” When the State Patrol showed up, Whitehead advanced on the troopers with a knife. When a taser had no effect, they eventually shot him. He died the next morning at Harborview. He didn’t have a felony record, but family members say he was battling mental illness. Up until the time he stopped his truck on the freeway, he didn’t meet the threshold for commitment. By then the tailspin, as with Joel Reuter, was rapid and irreversible.

Had Whitehead been waving a Glock instead of a knife, the political narrative would have been all about guns. Instead, the city’s political establishment shook its head and began to forget.

Let’s not forget. In fact, let’s circle back to guns. If Washington had a lower bar for committing the seriously mentally ill, they would no longer be allowed to own a gun. If they tried to buy one at a gun store — as did the deranged killers who shot filmgoers at the Aurora, Colorado cinema, and Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her constituents, and the students at UC Santa Barbara and Virginia Tech — they would be flagged and prevented from making a purchase. Any guns they already owned would be confiscated.

The failure to ease commitment rules in Washington ensures that the Ian Stawickis and Aaron Ybarras walking among us will not encounter any impediments obstacles to acquiring firearms.

And that is insane. Surely supporters of gun rights and gun control can agree on that.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Carlson

John Carlson

John Carlson is a contributing columnist covering politics in Seattle and Washington state.