EVERETT — Police around Snohomish County quietly have begun making use of a new state law designed to temporarily keep firearms out of the hands of people who appear to pose danger to themselves or others.
Washington voters in 2016 overwhelmingly endorsed an initiative that made it legal for police and family members to seek extreme-risk protection orders that block access to firearms for up to a year based on a person’s demonstrated risk of suicide, mental illness or potential for violence.
Since the law went into effect in early 2017, police countywide appear to have sought fewer than 10 of the orders, most in the past few months, records show. Before gathering up guns, in each instance they’ve first had to convince a judge that lives are at risk.
“You’ll never know what you’ll prevent by obtaining these types of orders,” Everett Police Chief Dan Templeman said.
His department late last month successfully obtained a court order keeping guns away from a young Everett man who reportedly had discussed a compulsion to shoot up a school in King County. Before that, the department sought court intervention when a woman living with mental illness and a history of suicide attempts went to a local sporting goods store and began purchasing a handgun.
Monroe police brought the county’s first extreme-risk case last summer. It focused on a man with previous admissions to mental hospitals. He’d gone to police more than once to report that somebody — he wasn’t clear who — was keeping him under surveillance. He’d also talked about ending his life. Police learned that he’d applied for a license to carry a concealed firearm.
The city first sought a temporary order before moving the case to Snohomish County Superior Court. Monroe Municipal Court Judge Mara Rozzano made the initial ruling.
The reason for the new law “is exactly this type of situation, where an individual has all the markings of concern, but in the past there’s been no process for allowing for a restriction to access to firearms,” she said at the time.
Stanwood police went to court in the fall after a man began shooting near his apartment for reasons that only made sense to him. He was required to surrender for at least a year the arsenal he had kept in his apartment, including 11 handguns, a shotgun and two military-style rifles.
A deputy civil prosecutor assisted in that case because Stanwood contracts for policing through the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
The law is a tool that has been “narrowly tailored to achieve a good end” said Jason Cummings, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor.
Lynnwood and Marysville also recently sought their first orders. The Lynnwood case involved a woman living with mental illness who began shooting a handgun while walking along a busy street.
In Marysville, a man who owned an AR-15 had a mental breakdown and became paranoid, stashing weapons around his house. He reportedly had been firing the rifle into a woodpile in his basement. Police worked with his family to get him into a hospital before seeking the court order.
In Lake Stevens, officers have sought the court’s help in trying to avoid another armed confrontation with a man who had previously attempted to get them to end his life.
The Lake Stevens man, 24, has a history of being suicidal. In 2016, he tried to provoke officers into shooting him on Main Street, including firing his gun in the air.
Police spent the better part of an hour trying to persuade him to surrender before he ultimately raised his assault rifle to his shoulder and started walking straight at them, records show. Police opened fire, a use of force prosecutors later deemed lawful.
The man survived. He later said he thought being shot and killed would avoid violating his religious beliefs about taking his own life.
Since then, the man has had at least two other “mental health crises” that required a response from the police department, detective Steve Warbis wrote in the petition dated March 28.
On Feb. 20, Lake Stevens police took the man to a triage center for a mental health evaluation.
On March 20, the man filed a pistol transfer application. The temporary protection order was approved days later.
Lake Stevens sought input on the case from Sherri Simonson, an administrative manager for Monroe police. Last summer, Simonson presented to a regional law enforcement group on what she has learned about the procedure for the petitions.
Renee Hopkins is CEO of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, the group that put Initiative 1491 before voters after state lawmakers opted not to act on the idea. Roughly 69 percent of Washington voters supported the measure, and it passed in 32 of the state’s 39 counties.
The alliance is not tracking how the extreme-risk protection order law is being implemented but hopes to do so as more data becomes available, she said.
For now, she and others have been working to support the development of best practices for such cases. In King County, for example, a team has been discussing approaches. Its members include representatives from disciplines such as law enforcement, the legal profession and advocacy groups.
Over time, the Alliance hopes that more family members will make use of the law and petition the court for help in preventing potential suicides. Suicides account for about 75 percent of firearm deaths in Washington, she said.
Data from Connecticut suggests that a similar law there, adopted years ago, has prevented people from ending their lives, she said.
“For our state, it is a really important tool,” Hopkins said.
The police chiefs in the county are comparing notes and working together, Templeman said. In Everett, the chief reviews every one of the cases before an extreme risk protection order can be sought.
It is one of the tools available “to prevent the next mass shooting, to the extent that we can,” he said.
It’s equally important, Templeman said, that families know they can take the same path.
And they don’t have to involve law enforcement, Marysville police Cmdr. Mark Thomas said.
“A family member could do exactly what we did and get the same results,” he said.
Scott North: 425-339-3431; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snorthnews.
A state brochure on extreme-risk protection orders, as well as other related documents, are available online at www.courts.wa.gov/forms,.