When Zoe Moore learned that her adult daughter Dana had obtained a gun, she pleaded with police to temporarily remove the weapon. “I took a bus to the police station and said ‘my schizophrenic daughter has a gun.’ They said they couldn’t do anything until she hurts herself or others,” she says. Weeks later, Dana committed suicide using the same gun.
“I do believe in my heart that [removing her gun] would have allowed her to live longer,” Moore, of Seattle, says.
Tragedies such as Dana’s death are exactly what supporters of Initiative 1491 (I-1491) hope to prevent. This November, Washington state voters will decide if I-1491, which would create Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs), will become state law. These orders would allow family members and law enforcement to ask a judge to temporarily suspend a person’s access to firearms if there is documented evidence that the person poses a serious threat to themselves or others. If the judge issues an order, the named person must surrender their guns to police and would not be able to buy, sell, or possess other firearms for up to one year.
Why an initiative?
Other versions of ERPOs have been introduced in the past but never made it to the floor of the Washington State Legislature. The Alliance for Gun Responsibility crafted I-1491 and Washingtonians have amassed more than 340,000 valid signatures that resulted in the measure being placed on the upcoming ballot.
Proponents say the initiative will help prevent large-scale and individual tragedies. In 80 percent of suicides and in almost every documented mass shooting, the instigators let their intentions be known beforehand, says Stephanie Ervin, I- 1491’s campaign manager. “This law would give us an opportunity to intervene before a threat become a tragedy for individuals, entire families and communities,” she says.
Three states already have laws like this: Connecticut, Indiana and California. Research shows that an estimated 38–76 people are alive today as a result of 762 risk warrants issued in Connecticut since that state’s risk-warrant law went into effect in 1999. During an ERPO hearing, a judge can refer the person in crisis for evaluation so they can receive help.
Survivors and family members of those killed in mass shootings at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle in 2006 and Seattle’s Cafe Racer in 2012 believe using laws like this could have prevented these tragedies. Proponents say that ERPOs would provide families and law enforcement with another tool to reduce assaults, homicides and suicides.
Nearly 70 percent of firearm deaths in Washington state are suicides. While those who attempt suicide with a gun complete the act 85–90 percent of the time, according to data, those who attempt suicide with pills or cutting complete the act less than 3 percent of the time, says Dr. Frederick P. Rivara, Seattle Children’s Guild endowed chair in pediatrics, professor, and vice chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Washington.
“We know that 90 percent of people who survive a suicide attempt do not go on to die from suicide,” says Rivara. “By trying to restrict access to guns, we are trying to prevent people from having a fatal outcome.”
Stephanie Holten from Spokane also believes ERPO’s will provide a safer environment for families under duress. After Holten’s ex-husband threatened to put a bullet in her head, he was served with a restraining order. That evening while Holten was walking home with her daughters, her ex-husband approached her with a semi-automatic weapon. After he forced Holten into her home, she managed to call 911 while her ex was briefly distracted. Police officers arrived and defused the situation with no shots fired.
Families often know when family members are deeply troubled, and fear that in an impulsive moment they might use guns to solve their problems, says King County Sheriff John Urquhart. This potential law fills a big gap, he says, because families and law enforcement, with judicial oversight, can use it to temporarily remove guns from people who might kill themselves or others.
Some say no way to I-1491
Not everyone is on board with this new initiative. Seattleite David Combs, a mental-health group facilitator and an active member of the Democratic Party, initiated an opposition campaign Know I-1491. Combs points out that under the proposed law, one criteria for taking firearms away is that a person exhibits mental illness. “This initiative should only consider a set of current of behaviors, but instead it stigmatizes and characterizes people with mental illness as being violent,” he says.
There’s also the issue of what might happen when law enforcement removes firearms from suicidal people. Combs worries tragedy could occur as a depressed, hopeless person faces the confiscation process.
Firearm owners are concerned about due process, says Dave Workman, senior editor at The Second Amendment Foundation’s TheGunMag.com. “The way the measure is written, anybody, say a police officer or family member, can petition to have someone’s firearms taken away from them. That individual has essentially a year to prove himself innocent of the charge. You’re putting the cart before the horse. We live in a country where you’re innocent until proven guilty,” he says. Those who oppose ERPOs also takes issue with the fact that no public defender is provided for the person facing an ERPO.
Combs also feels mass shootings should not be included in the wording of this initiative. Little research has been done on mass shootings but one reported profile of shooters is the white, male loner. “It’s not likely that society will take away guns from white male loners,” says Combs.
There’s scant gun violence research because a ban was enacted on federally funding gun violence research 20 years ago by the U.S. Congress. Opponents of I-1491 say the law has flaws. Advocates say it’s past time to have a state law on the books, saying ERPOs can be evaluated and improved as needed. Now it’s up to the voters to decide.
States where voters will consider gun-safety measures on Nov. 8
Washington’s not the only state with common sense gun-safety laws on their state ballots this fall. As state and federal legislators continue avoid passing laws that restrict access to guns, concerned citizens write initiates and propositions and then gather the required number of signatures to place these proposed laws before their state’s voters.
Three states have gun-safety measures on their ballots this November:
- Maine Background Checks for Gun Sales Measure, also known as Question 3
- Nevada Background Check Initiative, also known as the Question 1 campaign
- California’s Safety for All, Proposition 63
In Maine and Nevada, the initiatives on the ballot are similar Initiative 594, which Washingtonians passed in 2014. Both the initiatives would require background checks on the private sale of firearms, including sales at gun shows and facilitated online.
California’s Safety for All, Proposition 63, is a larger proposal that, if passed, would create a number of gun-related rules including requiring that criminals and domestic abusers sell or transfer their firearms after they’re convicted and strengthening background check systems.