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Originally published December 21, 2012 at 9:49 PM | Page modified December 21, 2012 at 10:49 PM

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State senator looks to curb violence by people with mental-illness

State Sen. Karen Keiser, citing dozens of killings by Washington residents with a history of mental illness, has asked lawmakers to look at changing laws that now make getting mental-health help too difficult and getting guns too easy.

Seattle Times health reporter

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Since 2002, about three dozen people have died after being shot by Washington residents with a history of mental-health problems, according to state Sen. Karen Keiser, who is urging her colleagues to address issues she believes could help stem the violence.

Washington has experienced "an alarming number of violent local incidents," said Keiser, longtime chairwoman of the Senate health-care committee, in a letter sent to senators this week. "No one appears to be tracking this or developing policy alternatives to what I consider a serious public-safety problem."

Events like last week's massacre in Newtown, Conn., the Colorado movie-theater rampage in July that killed 12 people, and the Arizona attack on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords last year that killed six, galvanize attention, Keiser said.

But Washington state has experienced dozens of less-publicized killings at the hands of people with mental illness who gained access to guns, said Keiser, explaining that she wants the Legislature to help improve coordination and information-sharing among agencies and providers, increase the availability of mental-health services and boost training on how to respond "when clear signals of potential danger are present."

She said the Legislature also may have to revisit state laws regarding involuntary treatment, and although her letter does not mention the possibility of legislation restricting guns, she said in an email she intends to address that issue, as well.

"I do not have any easy answers, but it is apparent that our current approach is allowing far too many horrible events of murder and mayhem to occur in our state," she said in her letter.

Three of the shooters — Isaac Zamora in Skagit County in 2008, Maurice Clemmons in Lakewood in 2009 and Ian Stawicki in Seattle in 2012 — killed four or more people in a single spree. She said the list, which includes only deaths involving firearms, was not comprehensive, and that further research likely would add other cases.

The killings all have different details, Keiser noted, "but the commonality is that in each case there were clear indications of potential violence and mental instability," and earlier contact between the shooter and some element of the mental-health system or police before the killings.

The list compiled by Keiser and her staff includes killers who had not received earlier mental-health treatment, although in some cases, they had been evaluated. In all cases, though, there had been previous contact with a mental-health or police official where there may have been a missed opportunity to intervene.

"While we cannot state with absolute certainty that closer integration of mental-health knowledge, training and treatment amongst police, the courts and providers could have prevented these incidents, we have to ask what could have been done better," she said in the letter.

Lawmakers in several states, in the wake of the Connecticut school shooting have proposed more restrictive gun laws. In Colorado, the governor, a Democrat, wants to make it more difficult for people with mental illness to buy handguns.

Washington law prohibits those who have been involuntarily committed for mental-health treatment to own or carry firearms, unless their right to own them has been restored.

Under federal law, it is illegal to sell or give firearms to someone who has been "adjudicated as a mental defective" or committed to a mental institution. The 20-year-old killer in Connecticut used weapons registered to his mother.

Advocates for people with mental illness worry that new laws could further stigmatize people they argue most often do not commit crimes.

In an email, Keiser said she has asked to meet Jan. 3 with advocates from the mental-health community before finalizing her thoughts on possible legislation.

"But I am deeply disturbed that so many families have said they could not get help for a family member they knew had mental-health issues," she said in an email. "Just last night, I talked to a constituent who said he tried to get local police to take custody of a gun owned by a woman who has mental-health problems and is saying she wants to hurt someone. The police department declined to take her gun. She still has it."

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @costrom.

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