ERPO Laws Gain Traction in the Gun Control Debate Post-Parkland
To some, extreme risk protection orders that take away firearms from dangerous people are a mental health and public safety no-brainer.
In 1998, a disgruntled employee in Connecticut shot and killed four of his bosses. The incident was highly publicized—the shooter reportedly chased the company’s president into a parking lot before killing him—and in 1999, the state became the first in the country to give law enforcement the legal authority to take away firearms from someone they believe is a risk to himself or others.
Indiana, California, Washington, and Oregon have similar temporary gun violence restraining orders in place, though California, Washington, and Oregon also allow family members to petition the court for gun removal. Researchers call such legislation, which essentially creates an opportunity to intervene if necessary, “a logical and complementary approach to background checks in preventing gun violence.”
These extreme risk protection orders, or ERPO, are relatively new but steadily gaining traction across the country. Last week, the New York Assembly passed one; similar “red flag” legislation is making its way through Illinois, Vermont, Maryland, and Alaska as well. Earlier this month, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham from South Carolina and Democrat Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut also introduced the Federal Extreme Risk Protection Order Act, which would allow federal courts to step in and take guns away from people found to be potentially dangerous.
“ERPO laws create another avenue to remove firearms from people who arguably shouldn’t have them.”
"If this becomes law,” Graham said in a statement, “every state will have an opportunity to go to a federal judge or magistrate and inform them that this person is about to blow.” He added: “This is not about losing your gun rights — easily. This is about intervening at a time when it matters.”
Under federal law, a person is only prohibited from buying or owning a gun if they’ve been formally and involuntarily committed to a mental health facility, found not guilty by reason of insanity, or undergone some other mental illness treatment mandated by the courts. Similarly, they may also be banned from possessing a gun if they’ve been convicted of charges related to domestic violence, or are the subject of a domestic violence restraining order. But even then, there are a number of loopholes that allow abusers to access potentially deadly weapons.
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“ERPO laws create another avenue to remove firearms from people who arguably shouldn’t have them,” Laura Cutilletta, the legal director at the Giffords Law Center, told VICE Impact. “There really isn’t currently any other mechanisms to remove guns from people who are dangerous but haven’t been adjudicated as mentally ill, convicted of a felony, or are not domestic violence abusers,” she explained. “So this is to fill that gap. It’s to try to remove guns from people who are giving off warning signs and are armed.”
Research has shown that ERPO laws are particularly effective in addressing suicide rates: One study estimated that thanks to the law in Connecticut, for every 10 to 20 risk warrants issued, one person is saved from suicide; in 44 percent of cases where risk warrants were issued and guns subsequently removed, the gun owner received psychiatric treatment they may have not otherwise sought.
"It’s to try to remove guns from people who are giving off warning signs and are armed.”
Cutilletta says gun violence restraining order bills are pending in almost 20 states. “It’s a really well thought-out bill that mirrors the mechanism that’s been in place for domestic violence,” she says, adding that the legislation also includes due process protections that address concerns from critics who say someone could falsify claims to try to take a gun away from a person who’s not dangerous.
Some gun control advocates speculate that an ERPO law might have prevented the Parkland school shooting, especially considering the alleged shooter’s mental health history. The Miami Herald recently reported on portions of the 19-year-old’s school psychiatric file, including a disclosure to his therapist in 2014 that he dreamt about killing people.
“Because this was a 19-year-old,” Cutilletta said, “he didn’t have a felony conviction, he hadn’t been adjudicated mentally ill, there was nothing that would have prohibited him yet— probably because of his age, he hadn’t been involved yet in the criminal justice system or mental health system. But he was giving off warning signs. And that situation is the type of thing that an ERPO addresses.”
“He had posted on a website that he wanted to shoot up a school,” she continued. “The police had been called to the home that he lived in many times. He had issues at his school where he was violent. If there had been an ERPO law, law enforcement or a family member could have petitioned the court to have had any guns he owned removed and remove his ability to purchase new guns temporarily.”
"He was giving off warning signs. And that situation is the type of thing that an ERPO addresses.”
On March 7, the former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student was indicted on 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder for the Valentine’s Day shooting spree.
Contact your lawmakers and tell them you support red flag gun legislation such as extreme risk protection orders, on both the state and federal level. For more information on ERPOs, check out the Giffords Law Center and its model legislation.