I’m asking you, as a mother who lost her daughter, to take guns from unstable people

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niu_shooting_memorial.jpg

A memorial for the five victims of a shooting on Feb. 14, 2008, in DeKalb. / Photo by Jonathan Miano

Editor’s note: On Tuesday, Mary Kay Mace is scheduled to testify before a state House committee that is considering legislation to make it easier for a family to take a gun from an emotionally disturbed member of the family. This is Mace’s prepared statement to the committee.

My name is Mary Kay Mace, and this is a photo of my daughter, Ryanne. Ryanne was the youngest of the five students murdered in the mass shooting in a lecture hall at Northern Illinois University on Valentine’s Day of 2008.

Ryanne was an honor student majoring in psychology. She wanted to become a therapist who helped people work through their problems.

Ryanne Mace / AP photo

Ryanne Mace / AP photo

Ryanne was loving, hard-working, responsible, musically talented, a voracious reader, and a terrific listener. She was the kind of person with whom others felt an instant affinity because she was so good at making people feel at ease and so good at being helpful. Her sunny demeanor was genuine and her sense of humor was pure delight.

Ryanne was my husband’s and my only child, and was truly the light of our lives. I feel no less than a moral imperative to do everything I can to prevent what happened to her from happening to others.

On the day of the NIU shooting, the gunman brought his legally purchased firearms in through the back of the building. He kicked in a door backstage, walked onto the stage where an instructor was wrapping up his lecture to his Ocean Sciences class, and he shot the instructor in the shoulder. The gunman then turned his weapon on the terrified students, firing again and again as they scrambled to escape until he needed to reload.

But that didn’t stop him. He came prepared and pulled out another firearm to continue the massacre. The gunman killed five students and wounded another 21 before campus police closed in, causing him to fire one last round, this time into his own head.

The NIU gunman was mentally ill. His family was well aware of it, having dealt with it for years. His sister was quoted as saying she was surprised that her brother hadn’t come to kill her – so they knew that he was dangerous, too.

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His parents had had him involuntarily committed to a hospital for psychiatric treatment when he was a teen. They had the authority to do that without any court proceedings as his legal guardians when he was a minor. But as an adult who didn’t like the way that his medications made him feel, he simply stopped taking them.

And because he had never been adjudicated mentally ill nor had he received inpatient psychiatric care within the previous five years, there was nothing in the state law at that time that could stop him from legally purchasing the guns he used to commit his horrific rampage shooting.

Now we have the chance to enact Rep. Kathleen Willis’s bill, which would establish a firearms restraining order. I believe had this option been available nearly a decade ago, my daughter and her four classmates would still be alive.

It can be a lengthy, onerous and expensive process to have an adult adjudicated mentally ill. If the gunman’s family had had the option to make a motion to a judge to have his firearms secured away from him by the police while his mental state was thoroughly evaluated, I have no doubt it would have prevented the NIU massacre.

We are careful about having policies in place to ensure that only law abiding, mentally competent adults can purchase guns legally in Illinois. And I appreciate being from a state that places such a priority on public safety. Nevertheless, as my story illustrates, the system isn’t perfect.

So what can someone do when they know their loved one is dangerous but either already has guns or wouldn’t have any problem buying them? The Firearms Protection Order Act provides a stopgap solution to that problem and it can be implemented before the subject of the order injures or kills himself or someone else with his guns. This order is issued only if a judge is convinced that the person clearly poses a threat to himself or to others. The bill also establishes a pathway for the person to have his gun ownership right restored before the order expires on its own.

I believe this bill could help save many lives because far, far more common than mass shootings are suicides. More than 60 percent of gun deaths are intentionally self-inflicted. Moreover, suicides are preventable — and one of the most effective ways of preventing them is to ensure that people demonstrating the signs that they are at a risk for suicide is to restrict their access to firearms.

Firearms are a much more lethal way to end one’s life than are other methods. There is an 85 percent chance of success using a gun to commit suicide whereas only a 5 percent rate of success with the most commonly attempted other methods. This is extremely important because 90 percent of the people who unsuccessfully attempt suicide do NOT go on to die by their own hands in the future.

In other words, taking away the most lethal means would very likely give these people in crisis a second chance at life, including the 20 veterans who die by suicide in this country every day.

The people who are closest to someone are in a position to notice when his or her mental state seems to be worsening; they know whether certain behaviors are new or completely out of character. They are the families who need to be empowered when their loved one is becoming erratic enough to pose a danger to himself or to others.

Passing House Bill 2354 will give families the chance to keep themselves, the person in crisis, and possibly others from harm. This bill has the potential for saving the lives of many Illinois citizens.

Send your ideas to curb gun violence to:letters@suntimes.com.

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