Opinion

Suicidal situations require an extreme-risk protection

The Seattle Times

Washington state has several laws to take guns away from people in certain circumstances, as part of civil-protection orders in situations such as domestic violence.

But those laws set too high a bar for immediate action when people are trying to save someone who is suicidal or stop someone who has made violent threats against friends or family members.

Voters should approve Initiative 1491 to fill in this gap. It sets up a court procedure for a judge to issue extreme-risk protection orders to temporarily prevent someone from accessing firearms if there is demonstrated evidence the person is a danger.

Citizen initiative sponsor Marilyn Balcerak tells the story of constantly searching her son’s room for weapons after he expressed suicidal thoughts. She felt helpless to stop him from buying a gun, even though James was despondent. She thinks this proposed law would have saved the lives of her son and her stepdaughter, whom he shot to death before killing himself.

Current law does not authorize a court to restrict firearm access for someone who is experiencing a mental-health crisis or exhibiting threatening behavior. The only way guns can be taken away from such a person in crisis is if he or she has been involuntarily committed for 14 days or more for mental-health treatment or is subject to a specific kind of civil protection order.

The extreme-risk protection order would allow only certain people to petition a Superior Court judge to restrict a troubled person from purchasing or buying firearms. They include family, other members of the person’s household, a dating partner or law-enforcement officers.

After a detailed court process, a judge may issue a protection order that prevents a person from buying or possessing guns for up to a year. The order could be lifted sooner if the person wins a review. But the person would need to pay for legal representation.

More than half of gun deaths in this country are due to suicide, so that assistance is definitely needed, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Although the proposal might be used mostly to prevent suicides, it could also help prevent mass shootings and other violent crimes.

Several shootings in Washington state during the past decade might have been prevented by this law. The fatal shootings at the Jewish Federation and Cafe Racer, which both involved shooters who were known to have suffered from mental illnesses, might have been prevented by a law like this.

Initiative 1491 is not a perfect vehicle — there is some potential for overreach. And when it passes, the Legislature should look at how the initiative loosely defines mental illness — intervention should be based on behaviors, not just a diagnosis. But it would save lives, do more good than harm and its rough edges could be smoothed out by the judicial system.

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