Remembering John Lennon and Fighting to Pass Extreme Risk Laws in His Honor
John Lennon was shot and killed 40 years ago, and something called an “extreme risk law” could have saved his life.
On the evening of December 8th, 1980, John Lennon was shot and killed in the front entrance of his home in New York City. His murderer was a one-time Beatles fan who had traveled from Hawaii to New York with a .38 special revolver he had purchased six weeks prior from J&S Sales, a gun shop in Honolulu, for $169. He purchased the gun legally, as he had a permit and no police record. Though the law did not permit him to bring the weapon into New York state, he nevertheless managed to smuggle it in via plane.
The shooter planned the killing over several months and even shared his plans with his wife. Had an extreme risk law (sometimes called Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs), or “red flag” laws) been in place at the time, Lennon’s murderer may not have been able to gain access to firearms. In 2019, Hawaii joined 18 other states and the District of Columbia in enabling family members, intimate partners, and law enforcement to obtain court orders blocking access to firearms for people who show signs of posing imminent danger to themselves or others. After assassinating Lennon, the musician’s killer expressed anger and a “deep-seated resentment” that his wife had not found a way to prevent him from buying a gun.
Now, four decades later, Red, Blue, and Brady sits down with experts on John Lennon and gun violence prevention policies to discuss the fallen Beatles’ legacy — and why it shouldn’t have ended when and how it did.
What Are Extreme Risk Laws?
Extreme risk laws are an effective means of preventing an individual’s temporary crisis from snowballing into a permanent tragedy. Such legislation — which goes by various names, including “red flag” laws, Gun Violence Restraining Orders (GVROs), and Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) — allows concerned family members, intimate partners, and law enforcement officers to temporarily remove an individual’s firearms if it can be shown that they pose a significant risk of harming themselves or others. This proactive approach not only prevents avoidable homicides, but also protects loved ones from harming themselves. Firearms are by far the deadliest method of suicide, claiming over 60 American lives each day. No less than 90% of suicide attempts with a gun are fatal; other methods average a mere 4%. What’s especially tragic is that the vast majority of people who survive a suicide attempt of any kind — 90% of such individuals, ironically enough — don’t go on to die by suicide, and 70% never even make another attempt. Since Lennon’s death, 19 states and the District of Columbia have enacted ERPO laws.
The Efficacy of Extreme Risk Laws
The implementation of ERPO laws has correlated with lower suicide and homicide rates, providing evidence for their effectiveness. This efficacy is also anecdotally demonstrated by myriad crimes, such as John Lennon’s murder, which ERPOs could likely have prevented by making it difficult or impossible for would-be killers to acquire firearms.
- Researchers have estimated that one suicide is averted for every 10 to 20 ERPOs issued.
- In 44% of cases studied across the state of Connecticut, the order led to the respondent receiving the treatment they may not have otherwise received.
- A recent study showed that extreme risk laws may provide exactly the type of urgent and individualized intervention capable of preventing mass shootings. Over a three-year period in California, at least 21 ERPOs — which the Golden State refers to as Gun Violence Restraining Orders, or GVROs — were utilized to remove firearms from people threatening mass violence. In each of these cases, no violence occurred.
The effects of gun violence are permanent, while those of extreme risk orders are not. Such laws address acute risk and do not result in the permanent removal of an individual’s guns. Typically, an ERPO lasts a few weeks — often 14 or 21 days — with the potential for a further 6 to 12 months following a court hearing. California’s longest removal periods, reserved for those who present a continued risk of harm to themselves or others, max out at five years. These periods allow at-risk individuals to seek treatment or other stabilizing resources while keeping the path clear to the eventual restoration of their firearms.
The facts make clear that these protective orders can be highly effective in preventing both gun suicides and homicides. When a loved one is in crisis, access to firearms can be the difference between life and death.