City’s ‘extreme risk’ gun bill seen as a way to deter suicide
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.
Pittsburgh City Council members Erika Strassburger and Corey O'Connor sponsored gun legislation that was introduced in December 2018.