SEATTLE — After Aaron Ybarra's deadly assault at Seattle Pacific University in June, some wondered why the suicidal, psychotic 27-year-old was allowed to have a gun in the first place.
After all, Ybarra possessed a well-documented history of mental illness: homicidal fantasies, emergency room visits for alcohol poisoning, two brief involuntary commitments and a professed admiration for one of the Columbine High School mass murderers.
As far back as 2010, he drunkenly summoned Mountlake Terrace police to his family home, saying he "had a rage inside him" and wanted to hurt others and himself, officers reported. At the time, he had access to a significant arsenal there, including a semi-automatic SKS rifle and a 30-round AK-47 assault-style rifle, police records show.
Despite all of the above, Ybarra and the weapons were perfectly legal in Washington state.
He had never been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility for at least 14 days, the time required by the state before adding someone's name to the national database of people barred from possessing guns. Nor was Ybarra a felon, another disqualifying condition.
His case highlights a background-check system that worked as designed but still resulted in tragedy. It also has restarted an election-year debate about whether the state is doing enough to keep weapons from those who are violent, dangerous and mentally ill.
Washington was one of the earlier states to submit mental health records to the FBI database used for firearms background checks, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The database's mental health records have nearly tripled in the past three years to 3.5 million in the database of 12.2 million names.
The state first submitted 47,000 names of the mentally ill to the database in 2003.
"It was, frankly, a controversial issue," said Assistant Attorney General Eric Nelson, who chaired the committee that analyzed Washington's laws concerning mental health and gun ownership.
At the time, gun owners had to be involuntarily committed for at least 90 days before losing their gun rights. Then came the April 2007 mass shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech, where a deranged student gunman slaughtered 32 people and wounded 17 others.
During the 2008 legislative session in Olympia, state lawmakers tried but failed to make it harder for the mentally ill to possess guns. In 2009, they succeeded. A new law required that the names of persons with involuntary commitments of 14 days be submitted to the NICS database.
The bipartisan bill was sponsored by Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, an advocate for both gun safety and more capacity in facilities to treat those suffering from mental illness.
"Like most hard government problems, this is a balancing problem," Hunter said. "Very much in this state we err on the side of civil liberties for the person who's being institutionalized."
Rob McKenna, state attorney general in 2009, said the state chose the 14-day standard rather than the much more commonly used three-day emergency mental health detention to protect people's civil liberties to own guns.
In Washington, 14-day involuntary commitments must be ordered by a judge. The state Administrative Office of the Courts, which obtains information on those committed from its statewide network of local court dockets, then sends those names electronically at the end of each workday to the federal and state background-check databases. People can petition the court to have their privileges restored.
As of Nov. 30, 2013, Washington has submitted nearly 100,000 names to NICS, putting it in the top 10 of those states that submit such reports to the national background-check database, according to a May study by gun safety organization Everytown.
Pennsylvania, which had been near the bottom, now leads the country, having submitted 676,968 records, the study shows — a rate of about 5,304 per 100,000 residents. Washington's rate is 1,417 records per 100,000 residents.
Rounding out the top five states are New Jersey, Virginia, Delaware and California.
Since 1990, California has prohibited people who have been involuntarily held for three days or more from gun ownership for five years.
After an unstable 22-year-old gunman killed six students near the University of California, Santa Barbara, in May, California lawmakers introduced a bill that would create a gun violence restraining order, in which family members or friends could ask a judge to restrain a dangerously unstable person from possessing guns. The measure would work much like a domestic violence restraining order, with a judge making a decision after hearing testimony from both sides.
Similar laws exist in Connecticut, Indiana and Texas, but it's not on the agenda for Washington gun safety advocates.
Despite such measures, the mentally ill who have been involuntarily committed can still purchase firearms because the background-check database is incomplete.
Federal law does not require states to submit mental health commitments. Instead, it relies on the "cooperative effort" of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.
As a result, 10 states have no laws requiring mental health records to be sent to this database. Twelve have reported fewer than 100 names, according to records.