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Researchers say underutilized state law may prevent more injuries from firearms

File - In this Feb. 23, 2016 file photo, gun safety and suicide prevention brochures are on display next to guns for sale at a local retail gun store in Montrose, Colorado.
Brennan Linsley
The Associated Press (file)
File - In this Feb. 23, 2016 file photo, gun safety and suicide prevention brochures are on display next to guns for sale at a local retail gun store in Montrose, Colorado.

Seattle researchers say a law that’s been on the books since 2016 in Washington state is being underutilized and has the potential to prevent more people from being harmed by firearms. Their findings are published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Since December of 2016 family members and law enforcement officials have been able to file what’s called an Extreme Risk Protection Order, or ERPO. If a judge approves the order, firearms are taken from an individual for up to one year. 

The main goal is to protect people who might be at risk of harming themselves or someone else with a firearm.  

But there is no system in Washington that tracks how many ERPOs are issued. So, to find this out, researchers at the University of Washington and Harborview Medical Center combed through court records from across the state. 

Over a 20 month period, they determined that 238 ERPOs were granted. They found the orders were spread unevenly: 40 percent of counties had no ERPOs requested at all. 

Researchers found that about 30 percent of ERPOs were filed because of the fear and concern that a person may harm themselves. About 36 percent were filed because of worry that an individual would do harm to others, and about 35 percent of the cases involved both concerns.

“And interestingly, about 87 percent of those cases have been filed by law enforcement,” said study co-author Dr. Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, an epidemiologist and the co-director of the Firearm Injury and Policy Research Program at Harborview. 

Researchers say the fact that most ERPOs were requested by law enforcement is evidence that not enough people know this is an option and that there is an opportunity to educate communities about this legal tool to try and prevent someone from causing harm with a firearm.  

“Their effectiveness potentially may go beyond just preventing mass shootings,” Rowhani-Rahbar said, “but rather they save lives via preventing suicides, for example, there are studies out of Connecticut and Indiana that have had their longest period of time since the enactment of ERPO laws that have shown that actually every 10 or 20 ERPOs may result in one averted suicide, which is really important.”

The study reveals that many of the individuals who had firearms taken from them struggled with substance abuse, domestic violence and suicidal thoughts.  

Rowhani-Rahbar said this shows another opportunity — that when firearms are taken from someone, it might also be a good time to connect them with social services.   

“So you can imagine somebody who has suicidal ideation or who has displayed suicidal behavior or somebody who has been struggling with alcohol issues. A substance use issues as part of the process, actually," Rowhani-Rahbar said. "There are opportunities to link them with social workers or social services or mental health services or substance use treatment services to improve their wellness and well-being and health.”

During the study’s time frame, more than 600 firearms were removed from individuals considered to be a risk. Researches plan to follow the people whose firearms were taken away to see if there is any evidence that it reduced the risk of suicide in the future. 

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.