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Armed and mentally ill

Politics June 30, 2014

Crime, Health / Medicine, Washington Governor, Washington Legislature, Seattle City Beat, Under the Dome Commentary: The real driver of random gun violence? It's not the weapon. And there are ways to address it.
Mental health improvements could help with random violence.

By John Carlson

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.