Politics

Oregon gun law could do more to reduce suicide, audit finds

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
Aug. 30, 2023 7:05 p.m.

Since 2018, the state’s “red flag” law was used more than 560 times, a figure the audit suggest is low due to an overall lack of awareness

An existing Oregon gun safety law could do more to reduce suicide and other firearms-related deaths, but the general public — and even law enforcement — don’t know enough about it, according to an audit released Wednesday by the secretary of state.

Oregon lawmakers passed the state’s Extreme Risk Protection Order in 2017. It allows family members or law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily order someone exhibiting dangerous behavior to turn over any firearms.

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“One of the primary barriers to ERPO use we heard from stakeholders was that the public generally lacks awareness of its availability,” the audit found. “When the law was originally passed, the State of Oregon provided minimal financial or resource support for counties, nonprofits, law enforcement, and the public to implement ERPOs beyond what was necessary to implement the law.”

Between January 2018 and June 2022, people tried to use the law to have firearms seized more than 560 times. Judges agreed in 78% of those cases, according to the audit. The vast majority of the petitions came from law enforcement, rather than family or household members. Extreme Risk Protection Orders are also known as “red flag” laws.

FILE - Firearms are displayed at a gun shop in Salem, Ore., Feb. 19, 2021.

FILE - Firearms are displayed at a gun shop in Salem, Ore., Feb. 19, 2021.

Andrew Selsky / AP

The statute allows law enforcement, family or household members to go to court to temporarily remove firearms from someone exhibiting dangerous behavior or making threats. They have to fill out paperwork and attend a court hearing before a judge that same day or the next business day. If the judge signs off, the petition is served to the person, typically by law enforcement. The person ordered to surrender their firearms has 24 hours to comply. The subjects of an Extreme Risk Protection Order can request a hearing within 30 days of the order. If they don’t, it goes into effect for one year. The order is also shared with state and national law enforcement databases.

“Oregon’s ERPO law specifically bars the court from including in its findings ‘any mental health diagnosis or any connection between the risks presented by the respondent and mental illness,’” auditors noted. “Based on our discussions with key stakeholders, this means risks should be based on the individual’s behaviors, not their mental health status or diagnosis.”

While the law has “likely been used as intended” the audit described barriers that could prevent some people from using it. Those included language barriers (the petitions have to be filled out in English), a lack of familiarity with the court system, or not having enough time to fill out paperwork and attend a hearing.

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“Many of these barriers are more acutely felt by lower-income Oregonians and other historically underserved groups,” auditors found.

Most of the people who were the subject of an Extreme Risk Protection Order were male, white and between 18 and 45 years old.

The audit found more public awareness of the law could also help reduce the number of deaths by suicide in Oregon.

Between 2018 and 2021, overall firearm deaths in Oregon largely mirrored national trends. But Oregon’s homicide by firearm rate was 55% lower than the national rate. The state’s suicide by firearm rate was 42% higher than the national average over that period, according to the audit.

“In Oregon, older white men are at the highest risk of firearm suicide and young African Americans have the highest risk of death by firearm homicide,” the audit states. “According to data from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, veterans in Oregon died by suicide at nearly twice the rate of the general population, with more than two-thirds using a firearm.”

After an order is served, a person has 24 hours to turn over their firearms, which the audit noted is a “potentially high-risk period particularly for respondents at risk of suicide.”

The audit cited research done during the law’s first two years, which examined 93 orders. They found more than half of the cases were connected to threats made within a week of a petition being filed to remove firearms from an individual. That suggests the Extreme Risk Protection Orders are used during times where there’s an immediate crisis.

Researchers “found more than 70% of petitions involved respondents with a history of suicidality or reported risk of interpersonal violence, with more than half reported as having a history or risk of both,” the audit states.

Serving an order can be risky for law enforcement, the audit notes, “considering the order is served without warning to an individual who has been identified as being at a high risk of violence to themselves or others.”

There’s also no mechanism in the law to make sure a person has surrendered their firearms if they’re ordered to by a judge.

The audit called on lawmakers to better fund public awareness.

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