Dan Warner: Extreme risk protection orders can save lives
Larry (not his real name) and his father hunted together his entire life, and he knew how much his father’s firearms meant to him. A firm “Second Amendment voter,” his father strongly believed in gun rights and would never easily part with these symbols of his individuality and freedom.
This conviction became complicated when Larry’s father began to show signs of depression. It started shortly after his mother died in a car accident, and now Dad was living alone. He was isolated, mostly stayed indoors watching television. Most alarming was Dad’s talk about the “pointlessness” of carrying on.
Larry reached out to family, and Dad got on medications, but refused to go to therapy. Dad was still saying concerning things, and the last time Larry visited, he saw that the gun cabinet was open, and the locks he had picked up for free at Veterans Affairs were nowhere to be found.
If you care about someone who is showing the “red flags” of suicide, it is scary enough. This becomes even more scary when that loved one is in close proximity to guns. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more than half of all suicides in the United States are done with firearms, and firearms quickly turn an impulsive moment into a lethal one. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine has shown that upwards of 80% of all suicides are impulsive actions, decided upon in just a few minutes before the action is taken. This is one of the reasons that something as simple as gun locks reduces suicide rates starkly, because slowing a person’s access to guns provides enough time for him or her to stop, think and not end his or her life.
To address this problem, Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, recently introduced Senate Bill 293, legislation for extreme risk protection orders (ERPOs). This legislation, already active in 13 other states, provides a means for loved ones to intervene when someone is showing the “red flags” that they plan to hurt themselves or others, and also refusing to put up common-sense safety precautions that they need to keep themselves, or others, safe. Without needing to hospitalize the person, which is an extreme measure (which both requires a high threshold for admittance, and can result in a person losing the right to own guns for the rest of their lives), loved ones can go to a judge who can order the guns removed from the person in mental health crisis, and help them get stable before returning their guns.
Once the suspension period ends (which is typically one year), a hearing would be held to determine if the ERPO should be renewed. During the suspension period the subject cannot buy, sell or possess firearms. The subject can also request a hearing at any time to have the ERPO rescinded.
ERPOs have been found to reduce suicides. A 2017 study by the University of Indianapolis found that ERPOs caused a 7.5% reduction in firearms-related suicides in Indiana, and a 13.6% reduction in firearms-related suicides in Connecticut. We have reason to suspect they would be equally impactful in Allegheny County, which has one of the highest suicide rates in all of Pennsylvania, and whose prime suicide victims are middle-aged white men who use firearms.
ERPOs often have bipartisan support: President Trump recently endorsed their passage in comments made in the wake of the Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, shootings.
While the specifics of Larry’s case are fabricated for this commentary, his story is a familiar one for many Allegheny County residents.
Extreme risk protection orders will not eliminate suicide. However, there is every reason to believe that they can have a positive impact on the egregiously high suicide rates in our region. ERPOs would provide families a means to keep their loved ones safe during crisis. It’s something our community should support.