Under a law approved by voters in 2016, police and family members can ask a judge to keep firearms out of the hands of people they believe to pose a danger to themselves or others even if there is no criminal behavior.
A man threatening to kill people at a church. A suicidal woman. A man brandishing a handgun in a residential building.
These are some of the people whose guns have been seized in Seattle under an “extreme risk” law overwhelmingly approved by Washington voters in 2016 despite claims from the National Rifle Association that it would selectively target gun owners.
The law, which went into effect this past year, allows police and family members to ask a judge to keep firearms out of the hands of people believed to pose a danger to themselves or others even if there is no criminal behavior.
Information on obtaining an Extreme Risk Protection Order or on other types of protection orders can be found www.protectionorder.org
Inquiries also can be sent by email to email@example.com.
If approved, judges can issue a one-year gun ban, called an Extreme Risk Protection Order, or ERPO. If gun owners refuse to hand over their firearms, the law allows police to seize the weapons with a warrant.
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The potential benefits can range from keeping one person from killing him- or herself to heading off people who have displayed warning signs sometimes associated with mass killings, proponents say.
“The goal really is to prevent future gun violence,” said Kimberly Wyatt, a King County senior deputy prosecutor who is part of a regional unit that enforces ERPO along with other stepped-up gun-seizure efforts such as in domestic-violence cases.
In addition to the prosecutor’s office, the unit includes the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, the Seattle Police Department and the King County Sheriffs Office.
The law is modeled, in part, on a California statute enactedafter the killing of six people and wounding of more than a dozen others in Isla Vista, California, in 2014.
The so-called “red flag” laws have been enacted in nine states and have been proposed in 10 others, amid newfound interest after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14 that took 17 lives, according to the online website The Trace.
Under Washington’s law, the two main factors that can be considered by a judge in deciding whether to grant an order are proof of a recent act or threat of violence, or a mental-health crisis that make people a danger to themselves or others.
Most cases involve people who own a gun or who have expressed an intent to purchase a firearm, but can even cover someone who might try to obtain a gun without overtly expressing an interest, Wyatt said.
“Quite often, we have patrol respond out to a suicidal individual, and there is actually a firearm in play. They’re either threatening to shoot themselves, to go get a gun, to maybe they actually have a gun,” said Eric Pisconski, who oversees the Seattle Police Department’s Crisis Response Unit, a group of five officers and a mental-health professional who handle various matters involving people in crisis.
As of late this month, Pisconski’s unit had assessed 52 incidents and sought 28 ERPO orders, including 18 since Jan. 1, most with an emphasis on noncriminal conduct.
His unit sifts through police reports to decide which cases to pursue. In some instances, patrol or other units in the department have referred cases or handled them on their own if a crime is involved.
“It’s very much a threat-assessment game,” Pisconski said, adding, “We want to be careful with this because we are effecting someone’s Second Amendment rights to … possess firearms.”
Included is an evaluation of their previous contacts with law enforcement, current involvement with service providers and information from family members.
So far, it is police who have sought the orders in Seattle.
In the case of the suicidal woman, police responded to a 911 call after she had shot herself in the leg.
Officers concluded the woman had tried to shoot herself in the head but got scared or startled. There was also evidence she had practiced firing a recently purchased gun, according to court records.
In the church case, the man sent threatening emails to two pastors, including one in which he said he wished their church, instead of one in Texas, had been the scene of the mass killing on Nov. 5, 2017, that left 26 people dead.
Earlier, he had posted a picture of an assault-style rifle on Facebook, with the words “Going on an adventure,” and in an online message seeking care from the church mentioned struggles with depression, anxiety, repressed emotions and anger, court records show.
In the brandishing case, a man being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder had knocked on the door of a neighbor, with a pistol in his hand, during a dispute, according to court records.
The first step for police is to obtain a temporary order from a judge, which allows officers to seize a gun or multiple firearms for 14 days before a full hearing in which the owner can challenge the request for the one-year ban.
Judges have granted all 28 requests for temporary orders sought by Pisconski’s unit. Two have been denied at the full hearing. Among the 26 granted requests, 23 involved men.
Of those cases, 22 involved people deemed a danger to themselves.
Officers have seized 43 guns, including 19 long guns. Six people had no guns.
Most people don’t challenge the request and voluntarily surrender their guns, Pisconski said.
Warrants have been served in two cases for failure to surrender guns.
In one case in Seattle, police served an Extreme Risk Protection Order in March on a 31-year-old man in Belltown, requiring him to turn over all his firearms.
The man had multiple incidents of harassment, including some while armed, and he had previously failed to comply with a judge’s order to surrender his guns as part of a criminal case, according to police.
When he failed to appear for a court hearing, police got a warrant, confronted him outside his apartment and seized a .25-caliber handgun from inside the home.
In addition to requiring the surrender of guns, ERPO orders bar the purchase of a firearm. The orders also bar the acquisition of a concealed-pistol license or require the revocation of a current license.
Judges also can direct people to undergo mental-health or chemical-dependency evaluations.
The orders can only be appealed once during the one-year period. They expire after a year, unless there is a renewal request.
Dave Workman, senior editor of thegunmag.com, a publication of the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation, said that, based on what he has heard, it appeared Seattle police were “probably being real meticulous about these things so they don’t open that Pandora’s box” that invites due-process complaints.
Nor, he said, does it appear they are “using this law to just willy-nilly grab people’s guns” from them, Workman said.
“That’s not what is going on at all,” Workman said, noting that gun-rights people are watching to make sure enforcement doesn’t get “carried away.”
Beyond Seattle, prosecutors have pursued about 20 ERPO cases on behalf of several other police agencies in King County.
One case was referred by the Washington State Patrol, which became concerned when a driver stopped for driving under the influence made comments about harming himself and school shootings.
Sandra Shanahan, program manager in the prosecutor’s unit, said one goal is to spread the word among family members and police about the law.
“Not everybody knows about this order and its importance and its value as a proactive harm-reduction tool,” she said.
Only a few family members have petitioned for an ERPO in King County. Some have asked law enforcement to take the lead.
If a family member is interested in seeking an order, they would be urged to work with police so gun removals can be done safely, Shanahan said.
Roommates who have lived with someone within the past year also may seek a petition.
Others who have expressed interest, like school officials or therapists who fall outside the law’s parameters, have been steered to law enforcement, Wyatt said.
“We’re really thankful there’s a tool that’s available to intervene before something gets to a very tragic end and that’s the intention of this order,” Shanahan said.