As federal lawmakers negotiate details of potential gun reform legislation, Washington state’s experience shows that funding must follow for good policy to take root.
Before talks reportedly stalled Friday, U.S. senators appeared poised to reach rare bipartisan agreement to strengthen federal gun laws. The draft proposal includes funding for red flag laws that would allow law enforcement to temporarily remove weapons from people in mental health crisis. It would expand purchase prohibitions for people convicted of domestic violence to include non-married intimate partners, closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole.” It would require stronger background checks for gun buyers under age 21.
These changes, while significant nationally, wouldn’t likely make much of a difference in Washington state, which has some of the country’s strongest gun-safety laws, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. But heightened public awareness, and federal funding, might.
Lawmakers enacted a red flag law here in 2016, but the option is still not being used to its full potential, says Dr. Frederick Rivara, director of the firearm-injury and policy-research program at the University of Washington’s Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center.
Another shortfall: A lack of adequate statewide mental health resources, especially in light of the marked increase in anxiety, depression and stress in young people during the pandemic.
He noted that while popular discussions of gun legislation tend to focus on assaults and active shooters, 75% of the firearm deaths in Washington, 60% nationally, are caused by suicide.
“We have lots of kids that are stressed that we see for various reasons, and finding counselors for them can be difficult,” he said. “It’s a problem across the country.”
Stronger protections on paper are only the beginning. It will take money and resources to stem this troubling tide.
U.S. senators hope to finalize a deal before the July 4 recess. They should persist in finding solutions to their disagreements. But, importantly, they must give states the tools to put plans into lifesaving action.