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Risk Warrant Legislation Seeks To Keep Firearms From Those Who Could Harm Selves, Others

In 2016, there were more than 1100 suicides in Virginia, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control). That’s more than twice the number of homicides.

The most recent data from Virginia’s Chief Medical Examiner finds more than 50% of suicides involve a gun.

“We’re here today because thoughts and prayers are not – and have never been – enough," said Virginia Democratic Delegate Richard “Rip” Sullivan, speaking a few weeks ago about his bill designed to help get guns out of the hands of those are at risk of harming themselves, or others.

“This is a bill that we know would save lives," Sullivan said.

The measure won’t be moving forward. It didn’t get a committee hearing this year - and was tabled in 2017.

Much of its content is based on a 1999 Connecticut law that allows law enforcement to remove firearms after securing a court order. Years after its passage, researchers found a decrease in suicide deaths.

Jeffrey Swanson with Duke University co-authored the recent study that led to those findings. The year before the law went into effect, Swanson says a disgruntled lottery employee shot four managers before taking his own life.

“And so there was a concern, a sort of public outcry: what can we do about this? I think the Connecticut law is sort of innovative because it was the first law that really gave police officers the clear legal authority to remove firearms even from a person who may not be legally prohibited from owning them or possessing them," Swanson said.

And at first – as is the case for many laws that end up on the books – nothing happened.

“And a number of years went by with very little utilization of the law and then sometime after the Virginia Tech shooting, the use of the law started to really spike and by the end of about 2012, 2013.. there were I think 760 some cases that had accumulated," Swanson said.

Swanson and other researchers found that for every 10 to 20 gun removals, one suicide was averted.

“Is that high or low? It may depend on where you're standing," Swanson said. "I know there's some people who care a lot about the second amendment right, and they say that's unacceptable. If you're someone like me or many people who have a gun suicide story in their own family, you may think about it differently.”

Those like Philip Van Cleave with Virginia’s Citizens Defense League – a gun rights group – see the issue differently. Van Cleave says taking guns away won’t decrease impulsive suicides.

“People kill themselves without a gun on impulse. Swallow some pills...just take the bottle down. It goes without thinking about it," Van Cleave said. "They jump in front of trains. I lost a cousin that jumped in front of a train, you know. He lost his father and he couldn't...he couldn't handle it. And so I don't buy into that.”

But a number of scientific studies suggest otherwise. One study from the New England Journal of Medicine found that states with the highest rates of gun ownership had over three times the number of firearm suicides compared to states with low rates of gun ownership.

And Swanson’s research team found that of those individuals whose guns were removed - were more likely to seek treatment for mental health problems. Still, Van Cleave has other issues with Sullivan’s risk warrant bill – which allows for a two-week emergency gun removal period.

“They can come in and take your guns away for up to two weeks before you have the first chance to go to court and show perhaps that they're completely wrong," Van Cleave said.

But Executive Director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence Josh Horwitz says a two-week time period is fair.

“There's due process here, it allows the judge to consider all the factors that might be involved in all the types of risks that a person may be temporarily or permanently subject to. They're allowed to remove that firearm temporarily so that the person can get help, that the family can make safety plans," Horwitz said. "So that, in other words, is a time out.”

After the initial two weeks, a court could suspend firearm rights for up to six months with the option of renewal. Horwitz says the six months is shorter than the one-year period in Connecticut’s law.

“In Virginia we need to reach across the aisle and get people from both sides to agree to this," he said. "And I think the idea was that six month with a renewal option, um, was a good place to start.”

And in terms of Van Cleave’s second amendment argument….Swanson says in this case, it doesn’t hold up in court.

“You know, a lot of people think that the Second Amendment is sort of an absolute guarantee that anyone could have a gun anywhere, anytime, any place," Swanson said. "And that's really not the case.”

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in DC vs. Heller - while it maintained a person’s right to bear arms for self-defense - noted “the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.”

Shannon Frattaroli is with John Hopkins University and the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy. She says a number of states like California, Washington and Oregon have begun to address the issue in a way that’s similar, but slightly different than Connecticut. Their laws build on domestic violence restraining order laws that already exist in all 50 states, and allow family members to bypass law enforcement and go directly to the court to petition them to remove firearms from their loved ones.

“Policies like the gun violence restraining order that California has, like the extreme risk protection order that Washington and Oregon now have - are logical extensions of those evidence-based policies that the consortium recommends," Frattaroli said. 

These laws are too new to be backed by studies just yet: California’s went into effect in 2016, and Oregon’s last year. But Frattaroli says research of their underlying foundation - the domestic violence restraining order - has been linked to a decrease in intimate partner homicides involving guns - as well as intimate partner homicides in general.