‘Red flag’ bill would reduce firearm suicides in Pa., Wolf, gun-control advocates argue at Capitol rally

By: - April 8, 2019 1:30 pm
Sen. Tom Killion, R-Montgomery, rallies in the Capitol for Senate Bill 90, which would create a Red Flag gun control law.

(Capital-Star file)

Pennsylvania’s newest gun control law is scheduled to take effect in just two days, but activists from across the state already have set their eyes on their next battle in the Capitol.

Two bills in the General Assembly would create a so-called “red flag” law, which would allow family members and law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily restrict a person’s ability to purchase or possess firearms, as long as the petitioner can prove the person poses a danger to himself or others.

The proposals, sponsored by Sen. Tom Killion, R-Delaware, and Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, were also introduced last year.

At a rally in the Capitol rotunda Monday, lawmakers and activists said the bill would reduce firearm suicides across Pennsylvania.

“This is our top legislative priority,” said Marybeth Christansen, Pennsylvania leader of Moms Demand Action, a national gun control organization.

Even though the legislation stalled in the past, activists say they’re heartened by the General Assembly’s action to pass a law last year that created new firearm restrictions for domestic abusers and defendants in protection-from-abuse cases.

That law goes into effect on Wednesday. Gun control advocates hope momentum from that victory will help them get a red flag bill to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk this year.

Wolf pledged his support for the red flag bill Monday, when he rallied alongside dozens of gun control activists, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, and lawmakers from the House and Senate.

There, Christansen said that Pennsylvania’s firearm suicide rate is well above the national average, claiming the lives of roughly one Pennsylvanian every nine hours. Firearm suicides are more common in rural counties than urban ones.

Nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths in Pennsylvania are the result of suicides, according to Centers for Disease Control data analyzed by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence.

A red flag bill would provide a life-saving resource to family members who fear their loved ones are at risk of suicide, Christansen said. These proposals allow judges to grant what’s called an extreme risk protection order, and are sometimes called “ERPO” laws.

Currently, the only thing a family member can do to intervene in a loved one’s mental health crisis is to have them involuntarily committed, said Shira Goodman, a gun-control lobbyist and executive director of the nonprofit CeaseFirePA.

“There’s no judge, no jury, and when you get out you have no gun rights,” Goodman said.

Goodman contrasted that with the proposed red flag law, which has “built-in” due process rights for at-risk individuals.

The legislation in the House and Senate would allow the subject of a protection order to contest the evidence against them in court, Goodman said. Even if the order is granted and their firearms are seized, they’ll get their guns back when the order expires.

Among those calling for a red flag law Monday were people who lost loved ones to firearm suicide.

Seventeen-year-old Julia Spoor spoke about losing her father to suicide in 2009, when she was seven years old. Her father exhibited signs of distress and had attempted suicide by overdose once before, Spoor said. The presence of his handgun, which he kept at home in a locked box, loomed over her family as his mental health deteriorated.

“An ERPO law could have saved his life,” said Julia’s mother, Jennifer Lugar.

Robert Schentrup, whose sister Carmen was one of 17 people who were killed during the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., said a red flag law could also prevent mass casualty events. Schentrup said that law enforcement officers visited the accused Parkland shooter’s house dozens of times before he opened fire in the suburban high school.

Red flag bills that came through the House and Senate last year drew the opposition of the NRA and the ACLU, which said it did not offer gun owners sufficient due process rights. The ACLU is also concerned about granting law enforcement greater search and seizure authority when a crime has not taken place.

But proponents of the bills seem to think that the outcomes are worth it. Sen. Killion and others said Monday that Red Flag laws in other states have already generated significant reductions in firearm suicides.

A 2018 study found that red flag laws reduced suicide rates by 7.5 percent in Indiana and 13 percent in Connecticut. In Maryland, courts have found probable cause to seize firearms from 148 people since legislation passed there in October.

This article was updated on April 9 to correct the last name of Julia Spoor. 

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.