The issues of behavioral health and gun rights collided Wednesday as the Washington state House of Representatives debated and ultimately approved a bill that backers say will help prevent suicides.
The bill imposes a six-month suspension on a person’s right to possess a firearm when that individual is detained under the state Involuntary Treatment Act for up to 72 hours for evaluation and treatment of a mental health or substance abuse disorder, even if he or she is no not subsequently committed.
“We know after these 72-hour holds that the risk of suicide is extraordinarily high,” said Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma. “We also know that a little bit over 50 percent of suicides in Washington state are committed by the use of a firearm. So trying to restrict the use and access to firearms until hopefully someone’s substance use or mental health stabilizes is really the goal of this bill.
“This limited restriction that is automatically lifted after six months will really help us saves lives in the state.”
SB 5181 would allow individuals whose gun rights are suspended to petition a Superior Court to get them restored earlier than six months. The burden of proof would be on the state to establish why the person should not get those rights back. The person’s right to possess a firearm is automatically restored when the six-month suspension ends.
Under existing state law, persons committed for involuntary mental health treatment for 14 days or longer lose the right to possess firearms. Persons committed for substance use disorder treatment do not lose their firearm rights.
Rep. Morgan Irwin, R-Enumclaw, said he agreed with the bill’s goal to prevent suicide but said Democrats and Republicans differed on how to fix the involuntary treatment system.
Irwin, who is a Seattle police officer when the Legislature is not in session, said on two occasions he has brought people to a hospital under the Involuntary Treatment Act for evaluation and treatment. Both times, the person committed suicide, he said.
“So this is a real problem. Firearms were not involved in either of those deaths, but they are tragic nonetheless. When we look at our ITA system, we are looking at a broken system and this (bill) is trying to fix it,” he said.
Irwin noted that a person held for up to 72 hours under the Involuntary Treatment Act is released because a behavioral health professional decides “you are no longer a danger to yourself, you are no longer a danger to others, you are no longer a danger to property, and you are not gravely disabled.”
As a result, the state should not take away that person’s right to possess a gun, Irwin said.
“I can’t get behind this solution because this is trampling on the rights of every citizen inside the state,” said Irwin, who is the Assistant Minority Floor Leader.
Voting largely along party lines, the Democratic-controlled House voted 55-40 to approve the bill. It moves to the Senate for agreement with an amendment. If that happens, the bill goes to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature.