Second Amendment defenders often turn to a familiar refrain when faced with the prospect of new firearms regulations: “Let’s enforce the laws we already have.”
The mantra can come off as a knee-jerk response, particularly when gun-rights groups use it to try to stave off sensible reforms. That includes Initiative 1639, a package of stronger background checks, storage precautions and assault-weapon age limits that Washington voters overwhelmingly approved in November.
But gun-rights activists aren’t wrong when they trot out that truism. Not only must public safety authorities enforce the laws on the books, but the general public needs to be aware of them and take advantage of their protections.
One example of a tool that’s gathering dust in Pierce County is the extreme-risk protection order. It allows family members, law-enforcement officers and others to petition a judge to remove firearms from the possession of someone deemed a threat to himself or others.
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In the two years this tool has been available in Washington, Pierce County Superior Court has received only 15 requests for protection orders, court administrator Chris Gaddis told us last week. A judge granted them in every case.
That’s barely more than one-and-a-half requests per month in a county of more than 876,000 residents — a county that exceeds the state average in its rates of suicide, violent crime, domestic violence and untreated mental illness.
We believe a public-education campaign is warranted.
Extreme-risk protection orders fall under the heading of “red flag” laws. At least a dozen states have enacted such laws as a way to disarm potential mass shooters and defuse other powderkegs before they blow.
In Washington, voters approved our law in 2016 with a nearly 70-percent “yes” tally. (That’s 10 percentage points higher than the recent I-1639 vote.) In Florida, legislators adopted a version this year in the wake of the Valentine’s Day high school massacre in Broward County.
States are taking proactive measures for good reason. A national study by the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety found that in 42 percent of mass shootings, suspects exhibited signs of violence in advance.
Smaller-scale family tragedies also can be averted when courts remove guns. The sponsor of Washington’s 2016 initiative was a Bonney Lake woman whose son, plagued by anxiety and depression, fatally shot himself and his stepsister with a pistol in 2015.
The new law went into effect in 2017. Of the 15 orders issued since then in Pierce County, two requests originated with family members and 13 came from a handful of law-enforcement agencies: the Lakewood, Puyallup, Fife and Milton police departments and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.
Surprisingly, Tacoma police officers didn’t file any.
Granted, the underutilization of this tool isn’t unique. In California, a bellwether state for “red flag” legislation, judges issued fewer than 200 gun-revocation orders during the law’s first two years in 2016-17, according to a Los Angeles Times investigation.
Public safety officials in California told the Times they plan to do.more training and education about the law, and we think a similar effort could be fruitful here. Likewise, local governments, mental health agencies and DV resource providers should resolve to improve community awareness.
After collecting the Pierce County data for us and seeing the low numbers, Gaddis said an executive team decided to post information on the Superior Court website — a modest step, but a start.
“The law is a good law,” Gaddis told us. “The million-dollar question is whether it should be used more. We don’t know.”
In any event, the courts have a limited role; they can issue an order only if a cop or a gun owner’s relative perceives a safety risk, can document it and knows enough to bring their concerns to a judge.
But it stands to reason that this and other gun laws could be implemented more effectively. Give credit to Second Amendment defenders for reminding us of that.