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They lost their son and daughter to murder-suicide. Now they’re pushing for gun control

James Balcerak was 23. He had autism and seemed to have lost hope of achieving the life he wanted.

In an argument, he made it clear he was thinking of suicide.

“When I was on the phone with 911, he was screaming through the door: ‘Yes or no, can I commit suicide? Yes or no? I’ll give you 10 seconds,’” his mom, Marilyn Balcerak recalled.

Balcerak worried her son would get a gun. She and her longtime partner Matt Smith also worried that trying to commit him or get a restraining order would sever ties with him.

When a young man killed six people near University of California, Santa Barbara in 2014, Balcerak thought of her son.

“I was afraid he would go to Bellevue College because he did struggle so much there socially,” she said.

After getting advice from a suicide hotline, Balcerak asked her son if he was thinking of killing himself.

“He said, ‘No, not today,’” she said. “And I asked him, ‘Are you thinking about hurting anybody else?’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘Why would you even ask me that question?’"

Ultimately James bought a gun at the Fred Meyer store in Kent – the same store where she said she had taught him to shop and be polite to cashiers.

With that gun, James killed his stepsister Brianna Smith, 21, and then himself, at the family’s home in Auburn.

Balcerak wants to prevent similar tragedies, so she's sponsoring Initiative 1491.

Under the measure, law enforcement, families and household members could request to remove someone’s guns if they were deemed a risk.

Balcerak said that if extreme risk protection orders had been in place for James, she would have sought to block James from buying a gun. If Washington state had such a law, a judge could prevent someone from buying a gun for up to a year. Connecticut and California have similar laws.

Balcerak and Smith don’t know why James targeted his stepsister. On the day their children died, the couple left their house and never returned, except to retrieve their cats. Friends helped to arrange the sale of their house.

In Renton, the aerospace supplier in Renton where Smith worked for decades closed so the entire staff could attend James and Brianna’s memorial services. Smith said his colleagues are compassionate people, but many are gun owners who disagree with the gun initiative.

“They have a strong belief that they will defend themselves, and they will prevent any harm from ever happening to them because they have access to a firearm,” Smith said.

“I always say I’m not a survivor, I’m surviving gun tragedy every day,” he continued. “I pray that they never have this experience.”

One of the most visible opponents to the initiative is David Combs, who does not own guns and has no office or staff. He does interviews from the lobby of his Redmond condo. He’s worried that the language in this initiative stigmatizes people with mental illness.

“I have bipolar disorder which is, interestingly enough, by definition a severe mental illness,” Combs said. That’s “one of the criteria that can be used by the judge for issuing the extreme risk protection court order, which was one of my concerns when I read the initiative.”

Combs is a support group facilitator for people with mental illness. He fears that having certain conditions would be grounds for granting an order.

“The use of an illness as a criteria, as opposed to behaviors, is concerning,” he said.

People with mental illness are at higher risk for suicide but have not been found to be at higher risk of harming others. Combs said the initiative is written too broadly and doesn’t adequately protect the rights of those subjected to the orders.

But voters may not be in the mood to care, he said.

“People have so much fear around firearms that they just want to have a solution,” he said.

Lars Dalseide, spokesman for the National Rifle Association, said the initiative would “strip law-abiding citizens of their constitutional rights without even entering a courtroom.”

The measure says a hearing could occur within the next 14 days.

The NRA is not spending money to oppose the initiative. But the gun rights association is getting the word out to members to oppose it.

“We’ve been giving them updates, we’re telling them why they should oppose this initiative, and hopefully with a good showing on Election Day, it will be defeated,” Dalseide said.

Local Second Amendment activist Alan Gottlieb told the Seattle Times that his group is also not spending money to oppose 1491. Instead he says they’ll put money into state legislative races – and challenge the measure in court if it passes.

The campaign to pass Initiative 1491 has raised $3.7 million dollars so far. It’s sponsored by the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, which last year successfully passed an expansion of firearm background checks.

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