Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Can a new gun violence bill help prevent suicides in Pennsylvania?

Lawmakers in other states have enacted laws for extreme risk protection orders and seen suicides drop. In one state, the law enabled authorities to confiscate guns from four people who allegedly posed threats to schools.

State Rep.Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery) says the extreme risk protection order bill could save hundreds of lives in Pennsylvania each year.
State Rep.Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery) says the extreme risk protection order bill could save hundreds of lives in Pennsylvania each year.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

State Rep. Todd Stephens wonders whether the lives of about 100 Pennsylvanians could have been saved last year.

He wonders whether 100 more could be saved this year, next year, or the year after — if the state were to pass a law allowing family members to temporarily have guns taken away from a suicidal loved one.

Lawmakers in other states aren’t wondering — they’ve enacted similar provisions and seen results. Connecticut passed its law and the suicide rate dropped 13.7 percent in a decade, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Indiana saw a 7.5 percent decline. In its first three months, Maryland’s law led to the confiscation of guns from four people who allegedly posed threats to schools.

Stephens and others think it could work in Pennsylvania, where more than 1,400 people die by firearm in an average year, about two-thirds of them suicides, according to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Philadelphia had the state’s lowest firearm suicide rate but highest homicide rate from 2011 to 2017, according to CDC data analyzed by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence. And rural counties with the lowest homicide rates had the highest suicide rates during the same span, led by Elk, Wayne, and Carbon Counties.

“In rural Pennsylvania is where the lives are going to be saved, because that’s where the lives are being lost,” said Stephens, of Montgomery County. “If you’re for gun rights, you need to be for this legislation.”

The measure he’s proposing is known as an extreme risk protection order (ERPO) law, which would allow relatives to ask a judge to determine whether a troubled family member should temporarily lose access to firearms. After a hearing, a court order could prohibit someone from having firearms for as long as a year, with a chance to ask for an early expiration, the possibility of renewal after a year, and a requirement their firearms are returned within one business day once the order expires.

The idea is that it could prevent mass shootings — as in Isla Vista, Calif., Parkland, Fla., or Annapolis, Md., where the perpetrators had shown warning signs — or suicides, which are most frequently fatal when they involve guns.

The concept has become popular among mental-health advocates, gun-control fans, and moderate conservatives alike. Nine states and D.C. have signed ERPO laws since the February 2018 Parkland school shooting, with nearly 90 bills introduced in state legislatures. So far this year, 62 bills have been introduced in 32 states, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which tracks legislation.

Gun-rights advocates characterize it as a breach of due process rights and say it is about seizing firearms rather than addressing mental-health problems. They also note that current law already allows relatives to seek professional help for a mentally unstable loved one.

“It does nothing to help the person who may be in danger,” said Kim Stolfer, an Allegheny County resident and president of Pennsylvania Firearms Owners Against Crime. “This is nothing more than political demagoguery.”

Stephens’ bill didn’t get traction last session, but he and a fellow Republican, Sen. Tom Killion of Delaware County, believe it could gain momentum after the legislature returns this month and be the second gun bill in two years to pass the GOP-controlled assembly.

Killion, whose Senate bill has cosponsors and mirrors Stephens’ House bill, said he hopes to frame the debate much like last year’s discussion about a law passed to force gun owners under protection-from-abuse orders to surrender their weapons.

“We didn’t approach that as a gun bill," said Killion. "We approached that as a domestic-violence bill, that it was a safety bill.”

Steve Miskin, a spokesperson for House Republicans, said the caucus would be “focusing on victims and community protection” this spring but couldn’t say whether Stephens’ bill would make it to a vote.

Under the proposal, the affected gun owner would have the right to a lawyer and a hearing. A judge could issue an emergency order to remove someone’s firearms immediately, but would have to hold the hearing within 10 days.

After consulting gun-rights advocates, Stephens added a provision to his yet-to-be-introduced bill that imposes civil or criminal penalties against anyone who lies to obtain an ERPO.

Recent studies have found that firearm ownership is a strong predictor of male suicide rates and that states with higher gun ownership have higher suicide rates.

In Indiana and Connecticut, the first states to enact ERPO-type laws, the overall suicide rate was found to have decreased along with the firearm suicide rate. But in Connecticut, one study found that non-firearm suicides increased. Another study found that the Connecticut law saved one person from suicide for every 10 to 20 guns seized.

Pennsylvania law currently provides for the voluntary or involuntary treatment of people with mental illness and prohibits those who have been involuntarily committed from possessing firearms.

That law is better, Stolfer said, because it “helps the person. It gets them some evaluation and treatment. … Are we just worried about the method of suicide or are we looking at the root cause of suicide?”

The National Rifle Association also says ERPO proposals don’t provide adequate due process and should include required mental-health treatment. It had opposed ERPOs, also known as “red flag" laws, but in a video released a month after the Parkland shooting, said Congress should provide funding for states to adopt ERPOs with sufficient protections.

Supporters of the proposals say they provide a temporary option without hospitalization. The current laws are “not designed to deal with people that are in crisis for a finite period of time,” Stephens said.

“The legislation [would] increase the odds that someone who has untreated mental illness will get a screening, will get diagnosed, will receive treatment,” said Deborah Ann Shoemaker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Society, which supports the bill. The goal, she said, is saving lives that “might not have been saved any other way.”