City’s ‘ex­treme risk’ gun bill seen as a way to de­ter sui­cide

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Front Page - By Ash­ley Mur­ray

A di­vorce. The death of a close loved one. Crip­pling fi­nan­cial stress.

Add a gun into the mix, and what was a tem­po­rary — though, no doubt, dif­fi­cult — prob­lem can be­come a per­ma­nent heart­break, ar­gue sup­port­ers of laws that tem­po­rar­ily re­move firearms from a per­son’s pos­ses­sion dur­ing times of “ex­treme risk.”

Pitts­burgh City Coun­cil is con­sid­er­ing such a mea­sure as one of its three pro­posed gun reg­u­la­tion bills. Op­po­nents view the mea­sure as an af­front to per­sonal lib­er­ties. Some state law­mak­ers on both sides of the aisle, though, are ex­press­ing in­ter­est.

Coun­cil mem­bers Corey O’Con­nor and Erika Strass­burger, in con­junc­tion with Mayor Bill Pe­duto’s of­fice, in­tro­duced the firearm reg­u­la­tion bills roughly seven weeks af­ter a gun­man killed 11 peo­ple at the Tree of Life sy­n­a­gogue in Squir­rel Hill.

“This pack­age of leg­is­la­tion can be seen as a re­sponse to just one hor­rific in­ci­dent that hap­pened last year in Squir­rel Hill, but I think this demon­strates that even though the leg­isla­tive pack­age is lim­ited in scope, we are

in­ter­ested in is­sues sur­round­ing gun vi­o­lence out­side of mass shoot­ings,” Ms. Strass­burger said. “We’re in­ter­ested in tack­ling and mak­ing mean­ing­ful change around sui­cide.”

She said that through the process of con­struct­ing the pro­posed or­di­nance, she has learned that “in a lot of [ex­treme risk] in­stances, peo­ple are much more likely to harm them­selves than they are to harm other peo­ple.”

Pitts­burgh’s pro­posed ex­treme risk law would al­low law en­force­ment or fam­ily and house­hold mem­bers to pe­ti­tion a judge to re­move guns from some­one who is show­ing signs of sui­ci­dal be­hav­ior or threat­en­ing to harm an­other. Re­moval would be for up to a year.

The pro­posed Pitts­burgh or­di­nance would send such pe­ti­tions, signed un­der oath, to a judge who then would con­sider the sub­ject’s his­tory of threats, re­cent sub­stance abuse, past firearms of­fenses and the time­line of when firearms have been pur­chased. From there, the courts could is­sue an ex­treme risk pro­tec­tion or­der im­me­di­ately be­fore a hear­ing, or sched­ule a hear­ing first, or sim­ply dis­miss the mat­ter.

The courts would have ap­prox­i­mately three to 10 days to make a rul­ing.

The or­di­nance would be the first of its kind im­ple­mented on the mu­nic­i­pal level, ac­cord­ing to the Washington, D.C.-based Brady Cam­paign, a gun-vi­o­lence pre­ven­tion ad­vo­cacy group named af­ter a for­mer White House press sec­re­tary, Jim Brady, who was se­verely hurt and dis­abled by a gun­shot wound dur­ing an as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt on Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan in 1981.

Now in 14 states, ex­treme risk pro­tec­tion or­ders, of­ten short­ened to ERPOs, also go by the names of red flag laws or gun vi­o­lence re­strain­ing or­ders. Con­necti­cut ap­proved its “Firearm Safety War­rants” mea­sure in 1999. It wasn’t un­til 2016 that an­other state, Cal­i­for­nia, passed its gun vi­o­lence re­strain­ing or­der law. Other states fol­lowed suit, most of them pass­ing ex­treme risk laws in 2018.

“They’ve re­ally ac­cel­er­ated in the past year. Some of that is be­cause of the un­for­tu­nate events of Park­land and Santa Fe,” said Kyleanne Hunter, of the Brady Cam­paign, re­fer­ring to the two 2018 high school mass shoot­ings in Florida and Texas, re­spec­tively, where a com­bined 27 teach­ers and stu­dents were killed.

Re­search of the laws’ ef­fec­tive­ness as it re­lates to homi­cides or vi­o­lent crimes is scarce be­cause most of the mea­sures are new.

The Gif­fords Law Cen­ter to Pre­vent Gun Vi­o­lence, led by for­mer con­gress­woman Gabrielle Gif­fords, who was in­jured in a mass shoot­ing, cites an in­stance in Ver­mont, which has a red flag mea­sure, in which law en­force­ment was able to take guns away from an 18-yearold who was plan­ning a high school shoot­ing.

In a 2017 is­sue of Duke Univer­sity’s law jour­nal, 10 psy­chi­a­try and law schol­ars pub­lished an anal­y­sis of 762 firearms re­moval cases in Con­necti­cut from 1999 to 2013. They es­ti­mated that for ev­ery 10 to 20 gun seizures, one sui­cide was pre­vented.

Cur­rently in Penn­syl­va­nia, firearms re­moval is an as­pect of the state’s Men­tal Health Pro­ce­dures Act of 1976, un­der which state po­lice must be no­ti­fied if a per­son has “been ad­ju­di­cated in­com­pe­tent” or has been in­vol­un­tar­ily com­mit­ted to a men­tal in­sti­tu­tion.

“It is un­clear to our of­fice at this point what the city is try­ing to ac­com­plish be­yond that which is al­ready con­tained in state statutes,” said Mike Manko, spokesman for Al­legheny County’s dis­trict at­tor­ney, Stephen A. Zap­pala, Jr.

How­ever, vic­tims ad­vo­cates have said that us­ing the act to re­move guns from the hands of abusers has proved an “up­hill bat­tle.” They’re not sure if an ex­treme risk pro­tec­tion or­der would work, ei­ther.

“But I’m not sug­gest­ing it’s a bat­tle that’s not worth the ef­fort,” said Cindy Sny­der, di­rec­tor of clin­i­cal ser­vices at the Pitts­burgh-based Cen­ter for Vic­tims, which works daily with those who have filed pro­tec­tion from abuse or­ders.

“Had we been aware [of the Squir­rel Hill gun­man], Oct. 27 looks dif­fer­ent,” she said. “I think it’s a le­git­i­mate ques­tion mov­ing for­ward. Do we have a mech­a­nism in place that lets peo­ple make au­thor­i­ties aware that there is a rea­son to be­lieve that some­one is in pos­ses­sion of a firearm, who is likely be­cause of men­tal health is­sues or just rage and anger, that they are go­ing to use that firearm to do harm to oth­ers?”

An ex­treme risk bill in­tro­duced by Penn­syl­va­nia Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Mont­gomery County, never made it out of the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee last ses­sion. Mr. Stephens is work­ing to rein­tro­duce the bill this ses­sion, ar­gu­ing that it would cre­ate “an al­ter­na­tive to the ‘302’ process,” re­fer­ring to the col­lo­quial term for in­vol­un­tar­ily com­mit­ting some­one for men­tal health care. He cited re­search on re­duc­tions in sui­cides in a re­cent co-spon­sor­ship memo.

“We know that 5 per­cent of sui­cide at­tempts are by gun­shot wounds. Of those five per­cent, 50 per­cent are suc­cess­ful. That’s a high rate of suc­cess,” said Luann Richard­son, a psy­chi­atric nurse and as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of nurs­ing at Robert Mor­ris Univer­sity, cit­ing data from the Gif­fords Cen­ter.

Ms. Richard­son said changes in be­hav­ior could alert fam­ily and friends that some­one may be con­sid­er­ing sui­cide. Chang­ing be­hav­ior pat­terns could in­clude talk­ing about sui­cide, mak­ing ar­range­ments for pos­ses­sions or pets, in­creased sub­stance abuse and de­pres­sion or anx­i­ety.

“A lot of times these pa­tients re­ally don’t want to die. They just don’t see an­other way out,” Ms. Richard­son said. “A lot of times when I talk to a pa­tient af­ter they’ve had an at­tempt, they’ll tell me that they’re grate­ful that their at­tempt wasn’t suc­cess­ful.”

Val Fin­nell, a physi­cian and gun rights ad­vo­cate who has been lead­ing the charge against Pitts­burgh’s pro­posed leg­is­la­tion, ar­gues that de­spite the tem­po­rary na­ture of ex­treme risk pro­tec­tion or­ders, such a mea­sure is not a mid­dle ground be­tween gun rights ad­vo­cates and those who see gun vi­o­lence as a pub­lic health is­sue.

Un­der state law, lo­cal gun reg­u­la­tions are “to­tally pre­empted, so there can be no mid­dle ground on any­thing,” Dr. Fin­nell said. “The most im­por­tant thing is it’s re­ally a con­sti­tu­tional vi­o­la­tion. We have Fourth and Fifth Amend­ment rights.”

He was re­fer­ring to fed­eral pro­tec­tions against un­rea­son­able searches and seizures and from crim­i­nal pro­ce­dures. He said a hear­ing re­gard­ing an ex­treme risk pro­tec­tion or­der would be “an ex parte hear­ing. You can chal­lenge it later. But then you have to hire an at­tor­ney and go to court and try to get your rights back . ... De­priv­ing some­body of rights is a very se­ri­ous thing. If we go down this path, there’s a slip­pery slope. ... The road to hell is paved with good in­ten­tions.”

Dr. Fin­nell high­lighted a Novem­ber 2018 in­ci­dent in which two Mary­land po­lice of­fi­cers fa­tally shot a man to whom they were serv­ing an ex­treme risk pro­tec­tion or­der af­ter he wouldn’t re­lin­quish his firearms.

Dr. Fin­nell pointed to re­search pub­lished in 2018 by an econ­o­mist and gun rights ad­vo­cate, John R. Lott Jr., that states, “These laws ap­par­ently do not save lives,” cit­ing “no sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect” on mur­der, sui­cide, mass shoot­ings or other vi­o­lent crimes — though Mr. Lott points to “some ev­i­dence” that rape rates rise. Mr. Lott heads the gun-rights ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion Crime Pre­ven­tion Re­search Cen­ter.

Ms. Strass­burger ar­gues that there is due process.

“There’s a mis­un­der­stand­ing that there would not be a court date, that there would not be a an op­por­tu­nity for them to re­spond in court through a hear­ing,” she said of her con­ver­sa­tions with some op­po­nents of ex­treme risk laws. “They can come to court, they can find a lawyer, or not, they can at­tend a court hear­ing and make their case as to why they shouldn’t have an ERPO against them.”

Coun­cil plans to in­tro­duce amend­ments in the com­ing weeks, in­clud­ing re­fin­ing the re­la­tion­ship of fam­ily mem­bers who could pe­ti­tion and adding lan­guage stat­ing that a per­son with a PFA or­der against them can­not file a pe­ti­tion against his or her vic­tim.

“We want to make sure that it’s suf­fi­ciently safe­guard­ing from peo­ple hav­ing the ERPO process abused for any sort of re­tal­i­a­tion or threat,” said Matt Singer, leg­isla­tive di­rec­tor for Mr. O’Con­nor.

Ms. Strass­burger said the bill’s co-spon­sors will re­move lan­guage that takes into con­sid­er­a­tion a per­son’s “med­i­cally un­su­per­vised” ces­sa­tion of med­i­ca­tion for men­tal ill­ness, as it may be a health and safety de­ci­sion to stop tak­ing a cer­tain pill.

Penn­syl­va­nia law ex­perts say that state pre-emp­tion will likely pre­vent Pitts­burgh from suc­ceed­ing with the lo­cal leg­is­la­tion but that they could ad­vo­cate at the state level. “This is re­ally a prob­lem that needs to be ad­dressed in Har­ris­burg,” said John Rago, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Duquesne Univer­sity’s School of Law.

A date for Pitts­burgh City Coun­cil’s vote on the pro­posed ex­treme risk mea­sure is not sched­uled yet, though it is ex­pected over the next cou­ple of weeks.

Dar­rell Sapp/Post-Gazette

Pitts­burgh City Coun­cil mem­bers Erika Strass­burger and Corey O'Con­nor spon­sored gun leg­is­la­tion that was in­tro­duced in De­cem­ber 2018.

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