We are all emotionally overwhelmed by the events of the last week, months and year. The scenes of the insurrection in our nation’s Capitol will haunt us for the rest of our lives. The pandemic breaks daily records in terms of numbers of cases, hospitalizations, ICU beds filled and Americans lost. The economic insecurity that millions of Americans face has fueled fear and poverty, and increased racial disparities stemming from racism in health and welfare. The fear of more acts of insurrection at the time of the upcoming inauguration are palpable and real. Locally, Gov. Jay Inslee has called out the National Guard to help protect the state Capitol as the Legislature starts back to work.
One byproduct of our current reality is an increase in firearm sales and a spike in gun violence. In 2020, firearm sales as reflected in background checks with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System in Washington state increased 22% over those in 2019 for a total of 781,471 background checks in the state last year.
Surveys conducted by the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center show that the increase in gun sales is mainly driven by fear of civil society breakdown, rise in crime and desire for personal protection. As insurrectionists use violence to achieve their political goals in our country, in which more than 300 million guns are in private hands, there is a real concern that widespread firearm access may contribute to the further spread of violence, including political violence.
But there is something we can do to prevent escalating violence while at the same time protecting individual rights, including Second Amendment rights, and that is to use existing laws to lessen the risk of the potential firearm-related injury and harm caused by insurrectionists. Washington, as well as 18 other states and the District of Columbia, have passed and implemented a law allowing Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs).
Since the law went into effect on Dec. 8, 2016, 521 ERPOs have been filed through Sept. 30, 2020, in Washington state. Under these laws, family, domestic partners, persons who share a child with a person with concerning behavior, current or former intimate partners or household members or law enforcement (and certain other groups, depending on the state) can request a judge to issue an order for relinquishment of all firearms and prohibit future purchase by an individual whose behavior indicates they are at extreme risk of harming themselves or others.
Factors that demonstrate such a risk can include threatening or violent behavior, threats of self-harm and abuse of drugs or alcohol. The videos we have seen in the nation’s Capitol as well as here in Washington at the governor’s mansion this week clearly indicate that insurrectionists are at high risk of harming others.
A study from California reported on cases where ERPOs were granted and believed to have prevented 21 episodes of intended mass murder. We believe that it is very appropriate for ERPOs to be used here and in other states to prevent the insurrectionists from bringing firearms to any protests. Family members who are alarmed that their loved ones might use their firearms in this way should strongly consider filing an ERPO. They can help to prevent their loved ones from harming others or committing murder. More information on ERPOs can be found here.
These laws do not violate an individual’s Second Amendment rights. They follow a clear judicial process, are temporary, and are designed to protect individuals from extreme behavior that places themselves or others at extreme risk of injury or death.
This is the time for law and order, and we need to use the laws we have passed and that are supported by the citizens of the state to protect our communities from violence.
Correction: An earlier version of this Op-Ed incorrectly stated there were 781,471 guns purchased in Washington state in 2020. It has been corrected: There were 781,471 gun background checks last year.