Congress can prevent gun violence with protection laws and federal funding

Congress can prevent gun violence with protection laws and federal funding

While Congress continues to consider policies to prevent mass shootings, state legislatures have been taking action. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now have Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) laws in place. 

ERPO laws authorize law enforcement (in all states), family members (in most states) — and, in a few states,  specific professionals such as clinicians and educators — to petition courts to temporarily remove guns from someone who is behaving dangerously and at risk of suicide or harming others. 

This is a civil court process (not criminal) modeled after domestic violence restraining orders laws. Early research suggests these laws are working. At a time when policymakers are searching for solutions to gun violence, 

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ERPO is an effective strategy for preventing mass shootings and for preventing gun suicide now. But in order for these laws to work, states and localities need help implementing ERPO laws. This is help Congress can and should provide. 

Specifically, a steady stream of federal funding would encourage robust implementation strategies in states with ERPO laws and create an incentive for additional states to enact these laws. Federal funding can advance ERPO implementation in at least five critical ways:

Train law enforcement

In every state with an ERPO law, law enforcement can file ERPO petitions. Judges evaluate those petitions and decide whether to issue ERPOs. Police departments and sheriffs’ offices serve ERPOs issued by the court and recover the guns. In some jurisdictions, prosecutors’ offices support these efforts. 

Training is essential for law enforcement to implement ERPO laws in a safe, fair, and effective manner that is consistent with due process protections. Without training, there is a risk of having law enforcement who do not know about ERPOs miss opportunities to prevent shootings. In Maryland, where law enforcement had access to state-wide training prior to the ERPO law taking effect, ERPO petitions have been filed in almost every county.

Build the on-the-ground infrastructure to support implementation

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Jurisdictions such as King County, Wash. and San Diego, Calif. have multi-agency collaborative teams that work together to assess how best to respond to individuals at risk of violence and to assure that when an ERPO petition is filed it meets the criteria specified under the law. 

Federal funding can help sustain current efforts and replicate these collaborative models in other states. In the absence of collaborations across agencies, there is a risk that law enforcement may be unable to apply and process ERPO petitions in an effective, just, and timely manner. 

Educate allied professionals and community stakeholders

ERPO is a tool for intervening early to prevent people who are in crisis from harming themselves or others. Often those who recognize someone is at risk of suicide or is planning to commit a mass shooting are the professionals who know them. 

Clinicians, teachers and community leaders would benefit from accessible, accurate information about ERPO and how these orders work. Without awareness among professionals that ERPO laws exist, there is a risk that opportunities to engage law enforcement and the courts in effective prevention will be missed.  

Support research to inform ERPO implementation

ERPO implementation varies among states and local jurisdictions. Rigorous evaluations that compare different implementation models and their relationship to ERPO law impacts are needed to improve policy and practice. Such research is critical to maximizing the impact of these laws. Without research, the opportunity to learn from the different implementation models underway will be lost.

Improve the national background check system

For the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to be effective, all disqualifying information needs to be entered into the system through a timely and accurate process.

Assuring that all ERPO respondents are included in NICS for the duration of the orders, and removed when the orders are no longer in effect, is an essential part of EPRO implementation. If ERPO respondents are not included in NICS, people identified as at risk for suicide or inter-personal violence will be able to purchase guns from licensed firearm dealers.

Some gun violence tragedies are not surprising to those closest to the individuals who carry them out. People often die not because we don’t have information that a mass shooting or suicide is being planned; people are dying because we don’t have a tool such as ERPO to intervene and prevent that plan from being realized. 

A preliminary review of California’s use of its law provides 21 examples of mass shooting plans thwarted through ERPO intervention. Anecdotes from other ERPO states echo the California experience. 

It is important to note that most gun deaths in this country occur by suicide. In many, but not all such cases, warning signs are known and those close to the person at risk attempt to intervene. Too often they don’t have a tool for removing those firearms from the equation. ERPO provides that tool. 

Law enforcement in several ERPO states report that ERPOs are most commonly being used to prevent suicide. Early research suggests that ERPO laws are a promising strategy for preventing suicide.

ERPO laws fill an important gap by providing a mechanism for temporarily removing guns from people who are behaving dangerously and at risk of committing suicide or harming others — before that violence happens. 

ERPOs counter the notion that we are powerless to intervene until a crime has been committed. With the public and policymakers calling for real solutions to gun violence, federal support for state and local ERPO laws and their implementation offers a clear path forward that will save lives.  

Shannon Frattaroli, Ph.D., MPH, is an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health where she is affiliated with the Center for Gun Policy and Research. Frattaroli is a founding member of the Consortium for Risk-based Firearm Policy.

Josh Horwitz, J.D., is the executive director of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence and an Associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Horwitz is a founding member of the Consortium for Risk-based Firearm Policy.