Researchers at the Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center (HIPRC), UW Medicine and the Department of Epidemiology of the University of Washington School of Public health have conducted the first state-wide study of extreme risk protection orders (ERPO) in Washington state since the law’s implementation in late 2016. The study’s findings were published on June 30, in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
Examining records from the Washington Administrative Office of the Courts as well as county courthouses around the state between December 8, 2016 (when the law went into effect) and May 10, 2019, researchers found that 237 ERPOs were filed by a petitioner over concerns for an individual (respondent)’s risk of inflicting self-harm, harm to others, or both. About 81% of all ERPO filings were granted, with the majority filed by law enforcement officers (87%). While the number of ERPOs filed showed an increasing trend over the study period, about 40% of counties in Washington did not file any ERPOs.
“Health professionals are in a unique position and should know about ERPO laws as they may have the important opportunity to screen patients or family members with a high risk of posing harm to self or others for firearm ownership,” said Dr. Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, co-director of the Firearm Injury & Policy Research Program at Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center, and Associate Professor, Epidemiology, UW School of Public Health.
In Washington, a granted ERPO is typically a one-year firearm prohibition for a person who poses a high risk to self, family or the public. To obtain an ERPO, one must fill out a petition form detailing the reasons why a person may pose substantial danger. The petitioner may also request a temporary hold on firearms be issued without notice. The court then calls a hearing in person the day the petition is filed. If the court issues an order, the person in danger must surrender firearms to law enforcement and are flagged during background checks if they attempt to purchase a firearm.
Over the 29 months of the study, at least one firearm was removed from a person at risk in 64% of cases, with a total of 641 firearms being removed. In one case, 35 firearms were removed. During the study period, four petitions were filed for a second ERPO for the same respondent. Respondents were predominantly white men aged between 25 and 44 years. Petitioners reported that about 24% of the respondents had a history of domestic violence, 37% had a history of criminal justice encounters, 62% had a history of suicidal ideation, and 47% had a history of substance misuse.
“The findings in this study suggest improving knowledge of ERPO laws in all states could set the stage for evaluation of its effectiveness in reducing firearm-related injury and harm,” Rowhani-Rahbar said. “The next step is to ensure that everyone knows how to obtain ERPOs in a time of need.”
Since 2016, 19 states and the District of Columbia have ERPO or similar firearm restriction laws based on risk. Very few studies have looked at the effect of these new laws on preventing firearm injury and death, which could prove to be helpful tools to protect individuals at high risk of hurting themselves or others by restricting their access to firearms.
Researchers in this study were a part of HIPRC’s state-funded Firearm Injury & Policy Research Program. The group’s mission is to reduce the impact of firearm injury and death on people’s lives through interdisciplinary research and collaboration with institutional, community, and governmental partners.