Gun panel aims for 'gun violence restraining order'

By David Kroman
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By David Kroman

After mass shootings like those in Newtown, Connecticut; Virginia Tech; and Aurora, Colorado, the question emerges: Where are our failures? Is it in gun control, mental health or both?

At a panel discussion Friday, a group called the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy argued that the solution goes beyond either.

A bill in the state Legislature this year, HB 1857, would have enacted a policy allowing gun violence restraining orders in Washington. People who feel threatened by a stalker or an ex-spouse, for example, can currently go to a judge and request a restraining order, making it a punishable offense for the perpetrator to come within a certain distance of the victim. A gun violence restraining order is similar, except it would temporarily disarm someone who may not be in a mental state to possess a gun safely.

Modeled after a California policy set to take effect in January 2016, the Washington bill made it out of a House committee but appears to be dead for this year. Groups like the Consortium and Everytown for Gun Safety, however, believe its approach is the right direction for reducing gun violence.

After Newtown, President Barack Obama tried to pass legislation that would increase access to mental health resources. Last summer, CNN ran an op-ed, “The real gun problem is mental health, not the NRA.” In U.S. House of Representatives, Reps. Mike Thompson, D-California, and Ed Perlmutter, D-Colorado, introduced a bill last May that would expand the list of mental health patients prohibited from buying a gun.

However, Duke University professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Jeff Swanson cautioned that the link between gun violence against others and diagnosable mental health is, in fact, very small. “Twenty-eight percent of gun-disqualifying records are related to mental health,” he said. “But only 4 percent of those who commit gun violence have a serious mental illness. If we waved a magic wand and eliminated all diagnosable mental health problems, we’d have 96 percent of the same gun violence.”

Further, said Swanson, “If someone has a mental illness and commits a violent crime, the illness might not even be the reason why.”

The argument made by the Consortium and the basis for HB 1857 is that there are other, more indicative signals for who might commit gun violence and when. What’s more, those same indicators may also serve as advance warning for suicide attempts.

The issue with using mental health alone is that the illnesses that might show up in a background check are mostly limited to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Swanson projected a Venn diagram with three circles: suicidality, interpersonal violence and mental health. Each category is a risk factor for increased gun violence, either toward others or oneself. As the circles overlap, the risk grows higher.

Swanson argued that, while the mental health bubble is over-represented in the gun safety conversation, the other two are vastly under-represented. Retired Judge Anne Levinson cited a statistic from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that found 1-in-5 Americans goes through some kind of mental health crisis. They often do not show up in the mental health bubble, but may show up in the suicidality and interpersonal violence bubbles, making them among the most likely to commit gun violence against themselves or others. However, because they were never diagnosed, committed to an institution or charged with a crime, they are relatively likely to slip through the cracks.

Retired police officer Brian O’Neill told a story about a woman clearly being repeatedly abused by her husband. However, she never implicated him, denying that he was violent. The officers knew who the man was and knew that he had guns in the home, but had no legal authority to take away those guns. One day, said O’Neill, the woman was shot in the stomach with a shotgun, but still denied it was her husband. The man was never arrested.

The bill to take effect in California will give family members and intimate partners a chance to disarm loved ones whom they believe are at serious risk of violence by going to a civil court and formally applying for a gun violence restraining order. If granted, a warrant would be issued to seize all firearms of that particular person. The restraining orders will be valid for one year. If family members still feel their loved one should not have a firearm after that year, they will be able to reapply.

Connecticut and Indiana have laws that allow for law enforcement to issue a gun violence restraining order. California, however, will be the first state that will allow family members to apply.

Because the United States guarantees the right to gun ownership, the restraining order must be a temporary one. Still, gun rights advocates argued this bill would be an encroachment on the Second Amendment. In an email, Brian Judy of the National Rifle Association said,“We’ve been hearing for two years from the proponents of Initiative 594 that they don’t want to take away guns. However, we have this bill now before us that creates a new process with one goal: to take away guns.”

Bill or no bill, the concept complicates the binary view of mental health versus gun control. It also combines the conversations of suicide and gun violence prevention. The key, said Swanson, is “less focus on diagnosis and more focus on specific behavior."

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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.