EVERETT — A man seeking to commit a mass shooting. A suicidal woman trying to buy a pistol. A man pointing a gun at his dad at a birthday party.
Those are a few of the reasons Snohomish County judges have ordered locals surrender their guns in the past few years.
Advocates say the mandates, known as extreme risk protection orders, have gone wildly under-used as a tool to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of people threatening violence against themselves or others.
State Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, noted “ERPOs” are tools that weren’t available in the decades when he was a state trooper and later Snohomish County sheriff.
“Many of the mass shooters display warning signs prior to the shootings,” Lovick said. “It’s very valuable now in preventing a tragedy before it’s too late.”
The Daily Herald reviewed all of the roughly 200 ERPO petitions brought in Snohomish County since they were introduced in 2017. They include a wide range of alarming behavior, from locals planning a massacre to contemplating suicide to threatening to shoot their romantic partners. The vast majority — over 85 percent — have been approved.
And some departments, like Everett police, have been more aggressive about pursuing the orders. Everett police have filed over 100 petitions in Snohomish County Superior Court since 2017. That’s almost five times as many as any other agency in the county. In July, they filed five. And over the past five years, judges have only denied 10 of them.
Before these orders were available, the move by police may have just been to “wait until violence happened and intervene and punish, with an eye toward discouraging such future acts,” said Shannon Frattaroli, a researcher with the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.
“It’s impossible to overemphasize how critical ERPOs are in addressing a real gap that exists,” she said. “What ERPOs provide to law enforcement, to family members, is an opportunity to recognize that someone is on a trajectory and is escalating in terms of their violence risk.”
In March, an Everett man wrote on the social media app Telegram: “I’d commit mass murder if I was in Seattle,” according to court records. In others, he wrote about bombing a synagogue and killing Jews to “make a new world.” The posts continued for months, and ultimately police were alerted.
Officers believed the man, 21, owned an AR-15, shotgun and pistol.
An Everett detective petitioned for an extreme risk protection order. In June, a Superior Court commissioner signed a temporary, two-week order to seize the guns while the man awaited trial for a yearlong order. Often if police identify “warning signs” during a call, they can get one of those temporary orders approved immediately, said Lyndsey Downs, who handles ERPO cases for the sheriff’s office in the civil division of the prosecutor’s office. This allows officers to remove guns in a moment of crisis before a trial in the following weeks.
“If you wait two weeks, that’s two more weeks the person has to access firearms,” Downs said. “… It makes a difference in removing one of those tools they could use to perpetrate violence.”
Later that month, the Everett man wrote to the court, noting he was only “being satirical and provocative for the sake of shock value as an online troll.”
Superior Court Presiding Judge George Appel approved the ERPO anyway, ordering police to seize the man’s guns until June 30, 2023. The order also restrains him from getting a pistol license and makes it illegal for him to purchase any other guns for the year.
If the man tried to buy one, he would be flagged in background checks.
In 2016, with over 69% of the vote, Washingtonians passed Initiative 1491, creating extreme risk protection orders for times ”when there is demonstrated evidence that the person poses a significant danger.”
Snohomish County voters approved it by a similar margin. So-called “red flag” laws like Washington’s have been implemented in 19 other states and the District of Columbia. Most have come in the past decade in the wake of persistent mass shootings across the country. In those cases, investigations often indicate perpetrators showed warning signs before the massacres. Washington was just the fourth in the nation to put such a law on the books.
The civil orders are one of the few gun control measures to get even a semblance of bipartisan support across the country. Of Washington’s 39 counties, only seven with small populations voted against the initiative in 2016. And a survey conducted after the May shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two adults dead found almost three-quarters of Americans support red flag laws.
Frattaroli said this across-the-aisle support might stem from its focus on dangerous behavior, as opposed to blanket gun restrictions.
“It’s incredibly relatable, in some ways unfortunately,” she said. “I think most of us can imagine a time when we’ve had a loved one or been in contact with someone who’s been in crisis.”
A federal gun control package signed last month by President Joe Biden aims to spark more states to adopt similar measures.
In Everett, Police Chief Dan Templeman said his department has prioritized ERPOs as a way to reduce gun violence. The department has a detective dedicated to reviewing those cases. And the city has a prosecutor assigned to review police petitions for the orders and trains officers on how they work.
The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office has also done training on ERPOs, said Downs, of the prosecutor’s office.
And while the Marysville Police Department hasn’t trained officers specifically on the orders, it has added policies to its manual about petitioning for them, Chief Erik Scairpon said in an email.
Local police allow most orders to expire after the first year, if they’re satisfied the moment of crisis has passed. If not, they can petition for renewal.
“A one-year period allows people to make an actual change,” Downs said.
Over half of the approved orders were for threats to others.
In 2018, for instance, the sheriff’s office filed a petition against Dakota Reed, a Monroe man who said he wanted to kill religious minorities and commit a school shooting. He was ordered to surrender a dozen guns. That was months before prosecutors charged him with felony threats. Reed was later sentenced to a year in jail after pleading guilty, thus permanently ceding his gun rights.
Many of the homicidal cases involve men threatening to shoot their significant others.
In Everett, a military veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and a history of domestic violence threatened to kill his girlfriend and dispose of her body, according to an ERPO petition filed by police. In 2020, he was ordered to surrender a revolver, two rifles and his concealed pistol license.
More than 30% of the ERPOs were for people who showed potential to hurt themselves.
Last year, a Mountlake Terrace woman reportedly told her counselor she was going to buy a gun the next day to kill herself. She was quickly barred from purchasing any.
And about one out of every 10 corresponded to people who threatened both themselves and others.
Red-flag laws often make headlines for their possible applications to stop mass shootings. But local judges have also granted extreme risk protection orders for dozens of Snohomish County residents who have threatened to use a gun to kill themselves.
In fact, if Americans die by gun, it’s more likely to be suicide than homicide.
And while research shows most people survive suicide attempts, their chances plummet if they use a gun, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 1999, Connecticut became the first state to pass ERPO legislation. In the aftermath, Duke University researchers suggest suicides dropped when guns were seized through the state’s law. Generally, for every 10 or 20 petitions approved, one suicide is prevented, scholars estimate.
Frattaroli, the Johns Hopkins researcher, said the orders’ greatest potential is in stopping suicide by interrupting gun access.
“As an intervention, they’re unquestionably life-saving,” said state Rep. Lauren Davis, D-Shoreline, who has spent her career trying to improve behavioral health support.
In late May, an Everett man, 69, told his girlfriend he wanted to “blow his brains out,” according to court documents. He had a history of such comments, so she took a revolver and a bolt-action rifle from his bedroom to try to stop him.
But the next day, she heard a gunshot come from the man’s bedroom. She “jumped up in fear and shock” and called 911, according to a police report. Officers later recovered five guns from the man’s apartment. One, a rifle, was found under a pile of laundry in the bedroom. It had a spent bullet casing inside of it, showing the weapon had been fired but the bullet hadn’t been ejected properly. Officers noticed a bullet hole in the ceiling light.
Police theorized the man, who was reportedly drunk at the time, was trying to die by suicide but slipped, firing a shot into the ceiling. He survived the attempt.
Officers seized all the guns. Three days later, police petitioned for an extreme risk protection order.
After a brief trial last month without the man present, Judge Appel approved the ERPO.
“I will suspend his right to bear arms for one year,” Appel said in court.
The judge ordered the man get a behavioral health evaluation within two months. That is common. In over 40% of approved petitions, Superior Court judges have found the evaluations appropriate. In many others, judges have only stopped short of ordering evaluations for logistical reasons, such as the respondent facing criminal proceedings or already being in therapy. In just under a quarter of all cases, judges have found evidence the people abused alcohol or drugs.
The Marysville police chief, Scairpon, noted a few recent ERPO cases in his city where mental illness and gun ownership clashed to create a crisis. In one, officers got word of a 34-year-old man planning to shoot himself in front of the police station. Eventually, police got him to surrender the handgun he’d recently bought. He is set for a trial on the protection order this month.
“The safest tools we have for these kinds of situations are to de-escalate the situation, remove the firearms creating the enhanced risk, and ensure that the mental health needs of the patients are being met,” he said.
Davis, the state House representative, said public knowledge of extreme risk protection orders remains low. In Snohomish County, police initiate almost all petitions. Relatives and household members can also petition the court, but they might not be comfortable doing so.
“I work with families every day who have a loved one with significant mental health and substance use challenges. Every one of those families should be aware that ERPOs exist, and know how to access them,” Davis said. “And that’s not the case.”
Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; email@example.com; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.
Help is available
There are free and confidential resources for people in crisis or who know someone in crisis.
If there is an immediate danger, call 911.
Care Crisis Chat: imhurting.org (chat); 800-584-3578 (call).
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255, 988lifeline.org.
The Trevor Project Lifeline for LGBTQ Youth: thetrevorproject.org, 866-488-7386.
Mental Health First Aid courses: mentalhealthfirstaid.org.
Compass Health’s Mobile Crisis Outreach Team may be contacted at anytime by calling the Volunteers of America crisis line: 1-800-584-3578.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.donordrive.com.
The Snohomish Health District has a list of other local resources. snohd.org/200/Suicide-Prevention.
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