In the first four months that Oregon's "extreme risk protection order" law has been in effect, people in 16 counties used it to try to get weapons out of the hands of nearly 30 people. Here's a look at who they are, and what happened.
PORTLAND, Ore. — Jason had but one item on his shopping list when he pulled into the store parking lot, rage seething within him: a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun just like his father’s.
Jason’s life was coming apart. He was 35 and the previous day, his wife of eight months had told him she was having an affair. Stunned, he tried to talk things through with her. She began packing her bags instead.
All night Jason stewed.
He’d come to get the gun because he wanted to go blow off some steam, he said. Head to the hills near his home in rural Brookings to blast some tin cans.
But Jason, who asked to be identified only by his first name, didn’t go to the hills that February morning. He drove home where his wife waited and headed inside, carrying the pistol still in its box.
An American’s right to own guns is enshrined in the Second Amendment, and broadly speaking, little except a felony, domestic violence conviction or commitment to a mental hospital can block it.
But Oregon lawmakers felt a growing sense of unease about people in potentially life-endangering circumstances like Jason’s having unfettered access to guns.
On the heels of a gun suicide in one lawmaker’s family and amid confessions of domestic violence in another’s, the Oregon Legislature narrowly passed a law in 2017 giving judges discretion to pry guns from people not convicted of a crime who show signs they might shoot themselves or someone else.
Under the new law, police, family members or roommates can petition a judge for an “extreme risk protection order” barring gun possession. If an order is granted, the person named in it has 24 hours to turn over all guns to law enforcement, a qualified third party or gun dealer. The order stands for a year but can be extended indefinitely by a judge.
To understand the ramifications of Oregon’s law since it took effect in January, The Oregonian/OregonLive reviewed hundreds of pages of court filings, listened to hours of courtroom audio and conducted interviews with people who lost their gun rights or tried to get someone’s weapons taken away.
That analysis revealed that, in the law’s first four months, Oregonians in 16 counties used it to try to get weapons out of the hands of nearly 30 people, most of whom were operating at a potentially deadly nexus of substance abuse, anger and gun ownership.
Tracking those cases wasn’t easy. There is no clearinghouse, and records aren’t listed on public dockets. The Oregonian/OregonLive filed public records requests with state court administrators, who sought documents from their counterparts in all 36 counties.
The news outlet reviewed case files showing 27 instances in which a person sought a no-guns order. They represent all or virtually all cases brought from January 1 through April 30. None of those cases has been previously reported.
Judges ordered guns taken away in 24 of them.
Judges declined to order guns removed in three cases and reversed the initial decision in three others, citing the high bar necessary to justify taking away a person’s guns. Under Oregon’s law, evidence the person is at risk to harm themselves or others has to be “clear and convincing,” not merely a preponderance, and must point to likely harm in the very near future.
Details of the cases of people who lost their gun rights paint a disquieting portrait:
- A Portland man who posed for photos with a semi-automatic rifle and had spoken openly about planning a school shooting.
- A Beaverton veteran who threatened to gun down people at his church.
- A Vale man who fired his .357 Magnum into the ceiling of his home, believing he was shooting at people in his attic who were poisoning him.
- A man in Pendleton stopped by his sister from returning to work to shoot the boss who’d just fired him.
Most of the people denied the right to own weapons were white men in their 20s through 50s. They live in big cities, small towns and rural hamlets. Nearly all were reported to be drug users or drinkers or face mental health challenges or both.
Some were suicidal, as shown in cases from Tillamook to Portland to Redmond. Most, witnesses told judges, were very angry.
At a time when many in the nation are searching for ways to stop would-be shooters before they can massacre innocents at a school or at a mall, the Oregon cases suggest pre-emptive gun removals may prove an effective tool. Of those who lost gun rights so far, at least four had threatened to shoot people in public places.
But Oregon’s law has been used most often to try to pre-empt shootings that draw far fewer headlines but claim far more lives: suicides and domestic violence.
Carrying the gun in its box, Jason entered the house, his wife inside.
“She got afraid,” he said. “I started drinking because she didn’t want to talk to me.”
Ten beers later, Jason said, the silence had given way to argument. He unboxed the gun.
Jason’s wife texted her new boyfriend, further enraging Jason.
He pulled out an empty magazine and loaded it. The argument was spiraling out of control, he recalled.
He put the magazine in the gun. His wife called her boyfriend, telling him Jason wouldn’t let her leave. Jason snapped.
He grabbed the phone, yelled into it that he was going to kill the boyfriend and broke it in two over his knee.
Minutes later, police arrived.
Despite its promise to prevent mass shootings and suicides, Oregon’s gun confiscation law is not without potential flaws.
The law allows a judge to order guns seized without the gun owner being so much as notified that a gun-removal petition has been filed and a court hearing scheduled. That’s atypical for court actions, but mirrors what happens in elder abuse, stalking and domestic violence cases, in which only the accusing side is present at the initial court hearing. A review of case records shows only a single gun owner was present or had their side represented when a judge first decided how much of a risk they posed.
If the judge orders guns taken away, the affected person is told he or she can challenge the decision. But so far, few affected gun owners have done that. They are not provided government-paid lawyers if they wish to.
Before the law passed, lobbyists for the National Rifle Association and Oregon Firearms Federation questioned whether it is legal to seize guns from people without their knowledge. (The NRA reversed its position this year, and its top lobbyist, Chris Cox, declared “we need to stop dangerous people before they act” and called for Congressional funding for state risk protection orders systems.)
In one case, Linn County Judge Daniel Murphy echoed the concerns about the lack of notice to gun owners, declaring from the bench that “our court has a serious question about the constitutionality of seizing weapons” when only one side is present in court.
No Oregon court has ruled on the constitutionality of the new gun confiscation law, but the Oregon Court of Appeals mentioned it in footnotes to three April opinions, noting it as a possible less-onerous alternative to involuntary commitment to the state mental hospital.
Murphy granted a gun removal order nevertheless in a case in which police accused a man who owns an AK-47 rifle of suicidal and stalking behavior. At the time, Murphy said he realized it could be easily thrown out.
“I’ll have to admit it’s a close case. If he challenges it there’s a good likelihood it could be set aside,” the judge said.
The man did challenge the case, and Murphy dismissed the order after finding “no compelling evidence” the man was a serious threat to himself or others. At the hearing, state troopers testified about the man’s concerning Facebook posts, but Murphy said the posts were “somewhat vague,” adding, “Unfortunately, people make all kinds of outrageous and bizarre comments on Facebook.” Two of the man’s family members testified about behavior they found alarming but conceded those events were years ago.
Pro-gun lobbyists also complained that the new law does not connect people who have their guns taken to social services that may help with underlying problems. Connecticut’s law, by contrast, requires the state health agency to be notified of those served with a no-guns order so they can give them mental health advice and a list of places to turn for help.
Kevin Martinez, chief of the rural Carlton Police Department, raised yet another concern. In his view, he said, Oregon’s law allows too much time for a person to turn over their guns.
“A lot can happen in 24 hours,” he said. “There probably needs to be a little more work on how that’s addressed.”
Among the bucolic vineyards of Yamhill County, the tiny town of Carlton sits placid, its Main Street quiet but for an occasional truck hauling hay bales to market. The town police force is just three people: the chief and two officers.
One of them, Officer Tim Jordan, filed a petition for an extreme risk protection order in January — four days after the law took effect.
According to the affidavit Jordan wrote, a Carlton man had threatened to kill his dog and then himself and later texted his girlfriend, “OK, murder suicide it is.” While at home with the man, the girlfriend tried to call 911 and the man reacted violently, the affidavit said. He retrieved a loaded pistol, it said, and cornered her in their bathroom between a wall and the toilet in a tussle to grab her phone.
At one point, he pounced on top of her while holding the gun, the document says. The woman, who sustained bruises in the struggle, managed to get away. That same night, the man shot their television with a shotgun.
Police officers arrived at the home and, with the man’s permission, seized 10 guns for safekeeping. The extreme risk protection order Jordan filed and won days later kept the man from getting them back.
“It was really good timing,” Jordan recalled in a recent interview at the town’s tiny police station. He had just been trained on the new no-guns orders at a meeting of local law enforcement officials, he said. “Such a good tool.”
Kevin Martinez, the town police chief, said he believes a life was saved by its use in the case.
Not all who seek to confiscate guns under Oregon’s new law are successful.
In Jackson County, a judge denied a petition brought by a man who sought to confiscate the guns of a California man who worked for him. A Marion County judge denied a mother’s petition to remove her son’s guns after the woman left nearly all the required paperwork blank.
The only denial so far of a petition brought by a police agency occurred in Deschutes County, in the heart of central Oregon.
In February, police in the city of Redmond were alerted to a suicidal woman. Officer Dex Dickson arrived at her house and reported hearing a gunshot “which came from the residence,” according to police records. Although the woman wasn’t injured in that instance, the officer was troubled by her behavior.
The case was forwarded to Steven Binstock, a detective in the small-town police department’s investigative unit. He’d recently been trained on the new no-guns law, he said, and thought the case now on his desk would be a smart place to apply it.
He filled out the forms and filed them with the court. Things went downhill from there.
Binstock appeared before Judge Walter “Randy” Miller, himself a former police officer. Courtroom audio recordings indicate the judge was displeased Binstock was before him rather than Dickson, the officer who had been on scene with the suicidal woman.
“You weren’t there for any of this?” the judge asked Binstock.
“I was not,” the detective replied.
“So it’s all hearsay?”
“Correct, from other officers.”
“Everything you have here is hearsay. You have not witnessed a single thing?”
The judge asked Binstock for details about the situation with the armed woman. The detective hesitated in his answer.
“Are you guessing, or do you know? Don’t assume,” the judge admonished. “You’ve sworn an oath to tell the truth and to tell me what you know. That doesn’t include assumptions.”
The judge declared Binstock’s proof that the woman was imminently dangerous to herself or others “hearsay within hearsay” and concluded the 18-minute hearing by denying his request for a no-guns order.
Days later, Deschutes County prosecutors charged the woman under a law that bars people from firing guns in residential areas, court records show. The felony charge was reduced to a misdemeanor when she pleaded guilty.
A judge sentenced the woman to two days in the county jail and a year of unmonitored probation with a special condition: no guns.
Oregon was the fifth of nine states to adopt a law allowing guns to be taken from people showing signs of risk. Connecticut was first in 1999, following a shooting massacre at the state lottery building. Indiana passed a similar red flag law in 2005, after the shooting of an Indianapolis police officer. Later California passed one after a mass shooting in a beachside community, Washington voters adopted a similar law by citizen initiative, then Oregon passed its own law, based on Washington’s.
One woman directly affected by Oregon’s new no-guns law says she found herself in a relationship that, with little warning, turned abusive and potentially deadly, given her boyfriend’s caustic combination of alcohol and guns. Things reached their worst when he introduced a loaded gun to an argument they were having. The woman left her home, running as fast as she could.
“I have never been more terrified in my entire life,” she said. “It’s debilitating. It’s absolutely debilitating, that kind of fear.”
The woman spoke to The Oregonian/OregonLive on the condition that her name not be used and certain identifying details about her case also be withheld. She spoke out despite intense fear of her ex-partner, she said, to highlight what she feels is an important tool other men and women at risk of gun violence should know about and use.
“I just don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” she said.
Days after she fled her house, a judge ordered her ex to turn in his guns. With the weapons stored safely in a police locker, she said she feels safer.
“I feel empowered,” she said, “because I feel safe enough to walk out my door every morning.”
She added, “I think this law is fantastic.”
Today, she manages her anxieties the best she can. “I feel like I’m putting one foot in front of the other,” she said. “I’m trying not to let this change my life.”
But the calm she projects to the world belies a persistent fear beneath.
“I look over my shoulder every second of every day,” she said.
The Vale man who police accused of shooting into his attic to repel intruders he said had poisoned him sees the law very differently.
Billy, who asked that only his first name be used, maintained in an interview that there was in fact an armed man in his attic, that intruders were poisoning him and that he poses no danger when armed. He said the judge’s and sheriff’s decision to confiscate his .357 Magnum was illegal.
“It’s unconstitutional what they did,” he said. “It has nothing to do with justice. It has nothing to do with anyone’s protection.”
Billy faces misdemeanor and felony charges of disorderly conduct, unlawful use of a weapon and bringing a Magnum cartridge into the county jail. He also faces a hate crime charge for allegedly threatening the Indian owner of a motel that mental health professionals placed him in as a condition of release from jail.
Billy, who said he’s “always had a gun my whole life,” denied the charges as “a farce.”
For a Portland woman whose ex-partner was served with a no-guns order, the law offers reassurance her ex will stay safe.
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She said he slept each night with a loaded pistol on his bedside table, and mental health problems and drug use had made him suicidal. Police became involved after he called 911 and threatened to shoot himself and their young son over a $300 child support bill.
The woman, who asked not to be named, said she felt a wave of solace wash over her upon learning that the gun confiscation order was granted. “I literally burst into tears because I was so relieved,” she said.
“I sleep a little better at night knowing that he can’t just reach over and grab a loaded gun and end it,” she said.
A recent study of Indiana’s gun seizures law by a forensic psychologist at the University of Indiana found that in the decade since its enactment, the law accounted for a 7.5 percent reduction in firearm suicides. Researchers found the law became even more effective after the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, when Indiana officials stepped up enforcement of the law.
Another team of researchers, led by Duke University professor Jeffrey Swanson, studied Connecticut’s law and estimated that one suicide has been prevented for every 15 people who had guns seized under it.
Swanson also acknowledges red flag laws are not a panacea to gun violence. The man who killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut had access to guns, despite the gunman’s acquaintances reporting he showed troubling signs prior to the massacre.
With police at his home, Jason knew he had to calm down. The officers came inside, he said, and made sure he and his wife were OK. Jason had already stowed the gun in the trunk of his car. He told officers they could take his gun for safekeeping, according to a police report describing the incident.
“I said, ‘Yeah of course, if you feel better, take it.'”
His wife, still reeling from the encounter, was in the garage crying, according to the police report. The report said Jason assured police he had “no intention of hurting anyone” but “was just really upset” his wife was leaving him.
Just before midnight the next day, a sheriff’s deputy arrived with paperwork – an order, issued by a judge that morning, telling him he could no longer have or buy deadly weapons for a year.
Soon after, Jason gathered his slingshot and a 10-inch hunting knife he’d gotten as a birthday gift and gave them up to a neighbor friend.
Looking back, Jason said he feels his threat was blown out of proportion.
Sure, he said he would kill his wife’s boyfriend and admitted as much to the police. “I said some stupid things,” he conceded. But if he was really going to hurt someone, he said, he wouldn’t shoot them.
“It’s more fun to beat the (expletive) out of somebody if you’re angry at them,” he said.
Jason, speaking in a genial tone, explained, “If you shoot somebody you don’t have that much fun. He’s dead right away. And you’d get in trouble. Big trouble.”
Jason said he feels extreme risk protection orders and the “really stupid law” that created them are far from foolproof. You can’t keep a person from kitchen knives or scissors or the myriad household items that could be wielded to inflict harm, he said.
And in a nation awash with guns, Jason said, there’s never one far from reach.
“If I really wanted to kill somebody I could go out and get a pistol from somebody.” He added later, “If I really wanted to have a gun, it’s no problem to get one.”
Information from: The Oregonian/OregonLive, http://www.oregonlive.com