The rash of mass murders, including in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas, are stark reminders these attacks can happen anywhere. In the last several years in Washington state, mass shooters have killed people in a Seattle coffee shop, a Marysville high school and a Mukilteo party, to name a few.
Voters — who have done through initiatives what legislators have sometimes lacked the will to do — should be proud of Washington’s common-sense restrictions implemented in the wake of these senseless acts. Lawmakers have acted as well.
Universal background checks, a ban on high-capacity magazines and barring people younger than 21 from buying a semi-automatic assault rifle are important safety measures that can make a difference, but still more can be done.
For the sixth consecutive time, the Democratically controlled Legislature failed to enact a ban on assault weapons this year. Lawmakers must also give extreme risk protection orders the kind of support that will help an already valuable tool live up to its promise.
These orders — ERPOs and commonly referred to as “red flag” laws — allow law enforcement, or a family or household member, to petition a judge to restrict the possession or purchase of firearms by someone who may be a risk to themselves or others.
Overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2016, these protection orders are useful for suicide and violence prevention, yet remain underutilized, said Dr. Frederick Rivara, director of the firearm-injury and policy-research program at the University of Washington’s Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center.
“In the studies we’ve done, law enforcement aren’t necessarily all knowledgeable about ERPOs,” Rivara said. “And families in rural counties want to just kind of solve the problem by themselves, when those orders are there for that specific purpose.”
More than two years after the law was implemented, researchers found 237 orders had been filed in the state; 67 were for concern about harm to self, 86 over harm to others and 84 harm to both self and others. At that time, out of the 39 counties in Washington, 16 had not filed any ERPOs. About a year later, in 2020, the number of orders had grown to 521 filed statewide. A dozen counties still reported no use.
So far, only King County has set up the kind of robust multiagency coordination needed to implement and respond to protection orders.
“ERPOs need real-time triage and a real-time response. It’s not a normal situation that can just sit. Time does not make these outcomes better,” said Sandra Shanahan, who heads the county prosecutor’s Regional Domestic Violence Firearms Enforcement Unit.
Although King County is leading the way, resources are still limited and efforts to spread the word on ERPOs are a work in progress, officials said. Other challenges include making it easier for families to file for protection orders and to provide mental health services for those who are in crisis.
Lawmakers recently created the Office of Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention to help combat gun violence. Funding its grant program could help support King County and spread similar implementation efforts throughout the state, including rural communities that may lack the resources.
As the federal government and other states remain frozen in the face of needless bloodshed, Washington has taken decisive steps to prevent gun violence. We must keep moving forward.