Newswise — 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 statewide 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 29 in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The researchers examined records from the Washington Administrative Office of the Courts as well as from county courthouses between Dec. 8, 2016 (when the state law went into effect) and May 10, 2019. They 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.

Of all ERPO filings, about 81% were granted and 87% were filed by law enforcement officers. While the number of ERPOs filed showed an increasing trend over the study period, about 40% of counties in Washington had no ERPOs filed.

“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 and a UW associate professor of epidemiology.  

In Washington, a granted ERPO is typically a one-year firearm prohibition. To obtain an ERPO, one must fill out a petition 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, and if the court issues an order, the person in danger must surrender firearms to law enforcement and is flagged during background checks if they attempt to purchase a firearm.

Over the 29 month study span, 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 involving the same respondent. Respondents were predominantly white men 25 to 44 years old. 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 help protect individuals at high risk of hurting themselves or others by restricting their access to firearms.

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