This week in a meeting with President Trump, Washington Governor Jay Inslee recommended our state’s “extreme risk protection orders” as a way to keep guns away from people in crisis. Inslee said the orders have been “supremely effective” at allowing families to get firearms away from people at risk of harming themselves or others.
“It involves a judicial decision, it involves a hearing, and it has saved lives I’m sure in the state of Washington,” Inslee said.
But while supporters are optimistic, those orders are just getting off the ground here. And no one knows exactly how many times people have sought an order like this throughout the state. Estimates are in the dozens.
Voters approved creation of “extreme risk protection orders” by passing Initiative 1491 in 2016.
Kim Wyatt, a senior prosecutor in King County, is part of the implementation effort that involves getting the word out to everyone.
“In large part even law enforcement and certainly the public are unaware of what we call an ERPO,” she said. As of last summer, she knew of approximately 18 orders filed statewide. And her office has been involved in about 10 since then just in King County.
Wyatt said one recent case shows how time-consuming and complex the enforcement can be.
“We had a respondent that was demonstrating some unstable behavior,” she said. “He had a series of disturbances with neighbors and other individuals and there was an escalation in his behavior to an actual assault. And law enforcement knew this individual had a firearm because they had seen the firearm on prior calls.” They also searched records to confirm that the man had purchased a firearm and obtained a concealed pistol license.
Persuading the man to peacefully surrender his gun took repeated visits from law enforcement and was “a little bit of struggle,” Wyatt said.
“At first I don’t believe he would answer the door. Then I think they reached out to family members, got a little more information, and then went back out and were able to present the order to him calmly, and he turned it over.”
This process did not result in any criminal charges.
Sandra Shanahan with the King County Prosecutor’s office said that’s crucial: families are much more willing to seek these orders if they can do so without having their family member arrested.
“They’re loathe to call the police to get criminal involvement, but they want to get help for their family member and don’t really see a clear path,” she said.
David Combs campaigned against Initiative 1491 out of concerns that it would stigmatize people with mental illness and unfairly curb their rights. Combs said he’s concerned that the orders allow even other people’s guns to be removed from the household.
But Wyatt said that can be necessary. “The safest thing is to make a clear line rule that you cannot be in a home with firearms,” she said.
Shanahan added that those other owners can get their firearms returned. “That person would be able to go to law enforcement and have them placed somewhere else off-site so that they’re secured and they’re not accessible to the respondent,” she said.
She said anyone needing more information about the orders can contact the prosecutor’s office at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Washington is one of five states where judges can temporarily take guns away from people in crisis.
The Second Amendment Foundation which promotes gun rights did not respond to a request for comment on the use of the new orders so far. However, the foundation’s founder Alan Gottlieb recently told NPR that King County’s new enforcement measures around gun surrenders in general have not raised concerns.
"We've had no complaints from anybody in the public that King County has violated anybody's rights," he said. "We also don't want guns in the hands of prohibited people."