With shooting, suicides, and abuse-related murder, 19 states and Washington, D.C. are considering legislation to introduce a new way to prevent gun violence in the future.
Marilyn Balcerak of Washington state tried countless times to put obstacles between her autistic son, James, and the purchase of guns. After suicide threats and social frustration, Balcerak called suicide hotlines, hospitals, and the police to keep weapons away from James. However, without a criminal record or history of hospitalization for James, Balcerak was helpless.
“I spoke with multiple police officers trying to find something, anything, I could do to keep my family, him, and the community safe and keep him from purchasing a gun. I was told there wasn’t anything I could do unless he committed a crime,” said Balcerak.
On June 7, 2013, Balcerak entered her home to find that James had killed himself and his step-sister, Bianca. Now, she is dedicated to the passage of laws that can help parents in positions similar to her own.
“James should have never have been able to buy a gun. I should have been able to prevent it.”
An extreme risk protection order (ERPO) aims to stop gun violence by temporarily removing guns from the hands of those who have been deemed a danger to themselves or others. With ERPO laws in place, if law enforcement or immediate family members—often the first people to see warning signs of a mental health crisis—can prove to the courts that someone poses a risk of harm, the court could prohibit the named person from owning, buying, or selling guns.
In the case D.C. v. Heller, the Supreme Court determined that the Second Amendment right to bear arms guarantees that law-abiding, responsible citizens may keep a firearm in the home for self-defense. This case also stipulated, however, that this right does not allow everyone to carry and use a weapon however they choose. In fact, current law bans gun ownership for anyone who has been convicted of certain crimes, diagnosed as mentally ill, committed to a mental institution, or subject to a domestic violence restraining order.
Still, because many abusive or suicidal individuals go unreported, untreated, and unnoticed, many are still able to own guns under this current law. According to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, this is where the issue lies. “People in the midst of a mental health crisis should not have unfettered access to firearms, nor should those convicted of domestic abuse or subject to a temporary protective order,” says Vance.
This unobstructed access to guns allows crisis to turn into tragedy. In fact, for many mass shootings, homicidal and suicidal threats or warning signs were exhibited prior to the tragedies, but family and law enforcement were unable to intervene due to an absence of legislation. ERPO laws close this loophole, providing family members and law enforcement with an opportunity to intervene before dangerous warning signs escalate to firearm related suicide or homicide.
Balcerak, who was committed to the passage of ERPO laws in her home state of Washington, is certain that this intervention can make all the difference. “If ERPOs had been law in 2013,” said Balcerak, “I believe Brianna and James would be alive, and I would have had more time to get my son the help he needed.”
Acquiring an extreme risk protection order against someone would operate much like domestic violence restraining orders do now. After presenting concrete evidence that a person is too dangerous to own guns, a judge determines whether the person in question is a danger to themselves or others, potentially ordering this person to turn in any guns they own. An emergency order would last 14 days, but family can file for a final, long-term ERPO, which would result in a full legal hearing where the person bringing the claim must prove that the named person is extremely likely to cause harm to themselves or others before the judge makes the decision.
With 20 states considering proposed ERPO legislation, including HAWC’s home state of Massachusetts, one only needs to look towards California and Washington state, who successfully enacted ERPO laws, to see the life-saving effect of these potential regulation. For L.A. City Attorney Make Feuer, the need for ERPO laws, and the consideration surrounding this legislation is simple enough: “Keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and those in crisis will save lives.”
- Initiative 1491: Extreme Risk Protection Orders. Alliance for Gun Responsibility. Retrieved from https://gunresponsibility.org/solution/extreme-risk-protection-orders/
- SB 868 Extreme Risk Protection Order. Ceasefire Oregon. Retrieved from https://www.ceasefireoregon.org/epro-extreme-risk-protective-order/
05, April 2017. “‘Extreme Risk Protection Orders’ Spreading Across U.S.” The Truth About Guns. Retrieved from http://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/2017/04/robert-farago/extreme-risk-protection-orders-spreading-across-u-s-say-goodbye-gun-rights/
6 October 2016. “Family Tragedy Behind Initiative 1491 to Get Guns from Those Deemed at Extreme Risk.” The Seattle Times. Retrieved from https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/i-1491-the-drive-to-get-guns-from-those-deemed-extreme-risk/