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What are Extreme Risk Laws?

Extreme risk laws are a proven and effective way to prevent temporary crises from becoming permanent tragedies.

Extreme risk laws help prevent a person in crisis from harming themselves or others by temporarily removing guns and prohibiting the purchase of firearms.

Extreme risk laws sometimes go by various names, like red flag laws, Gun Violence Restraining Orders (GVROs) or extreme risk protection orders (ERPOs), but they all have the same goal: empowering members of the community to prevent gun violence without threatening an individual’s Second Amendment rights.

How Do Extreme Risk Protection Orders Work?

Extreme risk laws allow a family member, law enforcement, or other key individuals as allowed by each state to present evidence to a civil court judge that an individual is a risk to themselves or others. The process is intentionally modeled after the process for domestic violence orders which exist in every state and have been consistently upheld as constitutional. The behavioral risk factors that are typically considered by a judge in an extreme risk law case include:

  • Patterns or recent threats and acts of violence
  • Dangerous past behavior with guns
  • Substance abuse
  • Recent firearms or ammunition acquisition

A judge may consider these and other factors when considering whether or not to intervene. The at-risk individual is allowed an opportunity to be heard and present other evidence before the judge in a civil — not criminal — court hearing.

If the judge finds that the evidence warrants temporarily removing guns from the individual, then the judge issues an order known as an extreme risk protection order (ERPO). An ERPO prevents the person in crisis from purchasing a gun and allows law enforcement to temporarily hold any guns already owned for safekeeping.

At a subsequent hearing, the extreme risk order can be extended if there is additional evidence that the person in crisis continues to be a threat to themselves or others. The individual can again present evidence in their defense.

Which States Have Extreme Risk Protection Order Laws?

Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., have enacted versions of extreme risk laws. The earliest extreme risk law, enacted in Connecticut in 1999, gives only law enforcement the ability to ask a court to remove firearms currently in a person’s possession. Law enforcement, however, can act on the behalf of family members. Indiana’s risk warrant process serves a similar function, allowing law enforcement to remove firearms if an individual poses a danger to themselves or others.

After its law went into effect in 2016, California became the first state to allow a family member or intimate partner to directly petition the court to prevent an at-risk individual from purchasing firearms through a civil process. (For more information on California's extreme risk law, visit Speak for Safety). Washington’s extreme risk protection order (ERPO) went into effect in 2016, and Oregon’s went into effect January 1, 2018.

Since the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida, fourteen more states and Washington, D.C., passed an extreme risk law: Florida, Vermont, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Colorado, Nevada, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Virginia.

States in which extreme risk laws are in effect:

  • California (2016)
  • Colorado (2019)
  • Connecticut (1999)
  • Delaware (2018)
  • Florida (2018)
  • Hawaii (2019)
  • Illinois (2019)
  • Indiana (2005)
  • Maryland (2018)
  • Massachusetts (2018)
  • Nevada (2019)
  • New Jersey (2019)
  • New York (2019)
  • Oregon (2018)
  • Rhode Island (2018)
  • Vermont (2018)
  • Washington (2016)
  • Washington, D.C. (2019)
  • New Mexico (2020)
  • Virginia (2020)

Why Are Extreme Risk Laws Important?

Gun violence is a complex issue that requires comprehensive solutions. Extreme risk laws are an evidence-based tool that can help prevent many forms of gun violence tragedies before they ever occur — suicide, interpersonal violence, and mass shootings alike. Frequently, family members, partners, coworkers, or housemates are able to identify warning signs or concerning behaviors before an individual acts. But more often than not, those concerned about an individual, had no official mechanism to prevent them from obtaining or using guns against themselves or others, leading to tragic consequences.

Many recent mass shooters exhibited warning signs before carrying out their attacks. That includes the gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, the gunman behind the 2017 Congressional baseball shooting, the gunman who attacked former co-workers at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital in 2017, and the gunman responsible for the Midland-Odessa shooting in Texas. Each had long and complex histories of violent and threatening behaviors, according to family members or co-workers. These are exactly the types of behaviors and violence patterns that extreme risk order petitioners cite to obtain a life-saving order.

We also can't talk about the epidemic of gun violence in this country without talking about suicide. In the U.S., three out of five gun deaths are self-inflicted, and about 85 percent of suicide attempts with guns are fatal. In 2016 alone, almost 23,000 people used a gun to end their lives. Extreme risk orders also provide an avenue to prevent these tragedies. In addition to potentially preventing mass or school shootings, extreme risk orders provide a swift, effective way for family members to remove guns from a person in mental or behavioral health crisis.

Do Extreme Risk Laws Work?

A study of Connecticut’s extreme risk law from 1999 to 2013 found that 99 percent of extreme risk protection orders resulted in the removal of at least one gun. Enforcing these extreme risk laws resulted in the legal removal of, on average, seven guns per individual.

In 44 percent of cases, the extreme risk order led to the respondent receiving psychiatric treatment they may not have otherwise received. Researchers estimated that one suicide was averted per every 10-20 extreme risk orders issued. A recent study showed that extreme risk laws may provide exactly the type of urgent and individualized intervention that could prevent future mass shootings.

The Public Overwhelmingly Supports Extreme Risk Laws

Americans understand that extreme risk laws prevent gun violence and save lives. A 2017 study by Johns Hopkins found 90 percent of non-gun owners and 75 percent of gun owners support extreme risk laws. That is up from a 2015 study that found 70 percent support. Two other polls conducted in early 2018 found support levels among gun and non-gun owners alike between 77 and 85 percent.

Fact Check about Extreme Risk Laws

  • Extreme risk laws don’t permanently prohibit a person’s ability to purchase or possess guns. They are temporary civil orders, which respect a person’s constitutional rights by allowing them to respond to the individual bringing a petition before a judge. Both the petitioner and affected individual have an opportunity to present evidence before the court. The affected individual may submit a request for the judge to reconsider the order based on new evidence for each time that it is renewed.

  • Extreme risk laws don’t remove due process protections. These laws are intentionally modeled after domestic violence laws that exist in all 50 states and have been consistently upheld as constitutional. In states that have enacted extreme risk laws, the burden of proof falls on the person bringing the petition, whether civilian or law enforcement. When a judge issues an order, the affected individual receives notice and can present evidence that they are not a risk to keep their access to firearms. If an ex-parte order (one without the accused present) is issued, it requires at least one hearing within a short time frame where the individual is given the opportunity to respond to the evidence presented before a “final” order is issued.

  • If a person in crisis is considering suicide, removing guns from these scenarios is a proven mechanisn to save lives. Suicide attempts are frequently impulsive decisions, and a gun in the home triples the risk of death. A study evaluating Connecticut’s law found that a life was saved for every 10-20 orders issued, and that many individuals received care services they might not have otherwise accessed without the order being in effect. Extreme risk orders alone cannot prevent all suicide attempts, however, compared to other methods, guns are uniquely lethal — about 90 percent of gun suicide attempts are fatal, compared to just 3 percent when attempting suicide using other methods. Evidence shows most individuals who survive a suicide attempt go on to live happy, productive lives and never attempt suicide again.

  • Most states have protections that make it illegal to file a false petition. While each state’s law differs, typically only close family members, dating partners, current or recent co-habitants, and law enforcement officers may file petitions. Two states allow certain healthcare providers to bring petitions, and New York law enables school administrators or their designees to bring a petition. Regardless, evidence must be presented before a court. Punishments for filing false petitions may include fines or jail time. In states where extreme risk laws have been enacted, anecdotal evidence shows they are typically only used in high-risk scenarios.

Ways to Improve the Effectiveness of Extreme Risk Laws

  • Ensure that there are no fees to file a petition before the court, thus ensuring that extreme risk laws are accessible to everyone.
  • Allow researchers access to data on enacted ERPOs for analysis of effectiveness and suggested improvements.
  • Dedicate funding for both public education and outreach efforts to increase public awareness of extreme risk laws, particularly to communities that are at a high risk of gun violence victimization.

Learn about the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act of 2019, legislation currently moving in Congress.

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