We need to get serious about firearm removal

It is a scene that we are all too familiar with: gun violence in America.

Last week, the setting was a manufacturing plant. A year ago, it was a Florida high school. These horrors unfold everywhere — a movie theater, a house of worship, a mall, a yoga studio, a grocery store, a neighborhood park, in our homes. Every day, nearly 100 people die from gun violence. No space is safe.

Far too often, dangerous individuals — people who should not have access to firearms — are able to turn everyday scenes of American life into tragedy. They are able destroy lives effortlessly. The Illinois shooter last week, despite having served five years in prison for aggravated assault with a baseball bat and knife, was able to obtain a firearm.

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When a background check flagged his conviction during a concealed carry permit check, a letter was sent ordering him to return his recently purchased Smith & Wesson .40-caliber handgun. But he didn’t. There was never any follow-up. And because of that fundamental failure in the system, among other factors, five innocent people are dead.

This is not an anomaly. From the start of 2014 to today, more than 48,000 Illinoisans received similar letters ordering them to surrender their firearms. But instead of following up on these orders to surrender, law enforcement are trusting gun owners to follow the orders — an outcome that is far from guaranteed.

Illinois is not the only state with these problematic gaps, either. The shooting in Aurora last week is a stark reminder that many states and localities (yes, even those with strong gun laws) have not implemented processes for the proper removal of firearms from individuals who are prohibited from owning them or those who are at risk of dangerous behavior.

While our leaders at the state and federal levels have been working to pass laws to prevent dangerous people from purchasing guns, Friday’s massacre in Illinois illustrates the importance of removing existing guns from those who should not have them. To stop gun violence, states and federal agencies must get serious about firearm removal. A letter asking a prohibited person to return his gun is not enough. Law enforcement in states and cities must prioritize the removal of firearms from those who should not have them; they must implement the proper protocols for safe removal of guns.

If we do not make firearm removal a priority, we will continue to witness the horrific bloodshed that we saw last week. What happened in Aurora, Ill., on Friday happens across the country on a regular basis. Prohibited people with domestic violence convictions and those who are the subjects of protective orders routinely fall through the cracks because their states do not have removal protocols for firearms, effectively allowing abusers to keep their guns.

Allowing abusers to possess firearms puts their partners — and society in general — at risk. Research shows past domestic violence is a significant risk factor for future violence, and a history of domestic violence is often a shared characteristic among the perpetrators of mass shootings .

Firearm removal can take several different forms. In Washington state, for instance, King County established a Regional Domestic Violence Firearms Enforcement Unit to remove firearms from individuals who are subject to an order to surrender weapons. From the beginning, the unit has been highly effective in its mission; during the unit’s three-month pilot in 2017, about 141 firearms were relinquished.

Similarly, California utilizes the Armed Prohibited Persons System (APPS), a program that helps identify existing gun owners who are prohibited from possessing firearms and then supports law enforcement teams to safely remove firearms from those people.

Washington, California and a select but growing group of states also benefit from a unique firearm removal tool — the extreme risk law — that allows family members and law enforcement to take action when someone is demonstrating risk factors for dangerousness.

After a mass shooting, the media consistently reports on the “warning signs” the shooter displayed, whether the behavior included acts of violence, cruelty to animals, or substance misuse. Extreme risk laws provide the opportunity to remove firearms from individuals based on these warning signs — before horrific acts of mass violence occur.

Extreme risk laws allow family members and law enforcement to petition a court to remove firearms from an individual behaving dangerously. Research shows extreme risk laws are effective, and they currently exist in 13 states and the District of Columbia. But, like all laws, these groundbreaking gun violence prevention tools will only work if the public and law enforcement know about them and use them. Removal tools and mechanisms — like extreme risk laws, King County’s task force and California’s APPS — must be robust and well-supported if they are going to be effective in removing guns from prohibited individuals.

The debate around gun violence has evolved rapidly in recent years. The vast majority of Americans support background checks to prohibit dangerous people from purchasing firearms; now we must must develop the tools to remove existing firearms from individuals when it becomes clear they should not legally own them.

We must ensure these removal processes are correctly implemented and those in charge of enforcement are properly trained. And in doing so, we can prevent tragedies before they happen. We can save lives.

Josh Horwitz is the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.