The United States sees an average of 22,000 firearm suicides and 14,600 firearm homicides, including 300 deaths in mass shootings, each year. In at least 42 percent of mass shooting cases, shooters put up “red flags” – maybe even blatant threats on social media – before opening fire.
Yet in all but 13 states, there’s not much to be done about reported threats — law enforcement cannot confiscate legally-acquired firearms unless they are needed as evidence in a criminal case.
Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs), sometimes referred to as Gun Violence Restraining Orders, or “red flag laws,” provide a means for getting firearms out of the hands of people who pose a threat to themselves or others. With this law, family members and law enforcement officers can report first-hand knowledge of warning signs and petition a court for an ERPO, a temporary revocation of a person’s firearm(s). The gun owner will appear in court within 10 days for a decision on the duration of their ERPO — guns may be returned, or revoked for up to a year.
Rep. Marcia Morey of Durham proposed an ERPO bill to North Carolina’s General Assembly last year, and House Speaker Tim Moore promptly passed it on to the House Rules Committee, where it died before the House had a chance to consider it. She says she intends to propose the bill again this session, but it will need bipartisan support to pass.
Morey says the bill is gaining support from different corners of society: physicians and doctors are jumping on board to protect public health concerns; law enforcement officers are supporting the bill in hopes of limiting gun violence on our streets; student and parent advocacy groups are working to pass the bill to limit the likelihood of another school shooting. After serving 18 years as a judge in Durham, Morey has learned that gun violence can “affect anyone, anytime.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, some gun rights advocates have voiced opposition to the idea. They express the concern that an ERPO law could be subject to abuse if, for instance, any acquaintance of a gun owner is allowed to petition a court for a protection order. In an attempt to address this concern and find common ground, Morey tightened her proposal so that the circle of people allowed to petition would be limited to family members and law enforcement officers.
Notwithstanding the claims of critics, the ERPO bill is clearly not aimed at stripping the masses of their Second Amendment right. Rather, it is a moderate and common sense measure that members of all political parties and ideologies ought to be able to get behind. In particular, it addresses the repeated calls of gun rights advocates to emphasize mental health policy over gun control, and to their oft-expressed sentiment that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” with proper consideration for the right to self-defense and the right to due process.
Similar legislation was able to garner bipartisan support in Florida after the Parkland school shooting, which killed 17 people and might have been prevented if law enforcement had been allowed to seize shooter Nikolas Cruz’s firearms after reports of his threats. “I’m hoping we can be proactive in North Carolina and not wait for another tragic massacre,” Morey says.
Thirteen states have enacted and seen success with ERPO laws — 11 of which use model legislation developed by the Giffords Law Center that Morey’s bill is modeled after. During its first three months in action, Maryland’s ERPO law enabled more than 300 ERPOs, most of which resulted from threats of self-harm. ERPO laws can greatly reduce suicide rates since suicide attempts by firearm are invariably the most lethal; 85% of suicide attempts by firearm are lethal, while only 3% of suicide attempts by overdose – the most common method of suicide attempt – succeed. ERPO laws have led to a 7.5% decrease in the firearm suicide rate in Indiana and a 14% decrease in Connecticut. Furthermore, in 44% of Connecticut’s ERPO cases, a person in crisis received psychiatric care that they likely wouldn’t have received otherwise.
Many locales in North Carolina have already established Crisis Intervention Teams — law enforcement officers who are specially trained to identify signs of mental illness and help people in crisis. Morey’s bill will include an additional education component, aimed at educating law enforcement on implementing ERPOs.
Morey clearly has the facts on her side in this effort. This bill is the least invasive way to protect those who are most at risk of gun violence. It has been effective in other states and can be effective in North Carolina.
By following suit in a bipartisan effort to pass Morey’s ERPO bill, the North Carolina General Assembly has an opportunity to save numerous lives. It ought to act right away.
Kate Rice is a student at UNC Chapel Hill and an intern at NC Policy Watch.