On April 24, Governor Larry Hogan signed Maryland’s Extreme Risk Protection Orders bill into law. It empowers family members, licensed health professionals and counselors, law enforcement, immediate relatives, lovers, guardians, and roommates to seek protective orders to remove guns for up to one year and possibly also an emergency psychiatric evaluation if an individual’s behavior signals they may harm themselves or others.
I asked my state delegate to introduce this bill in memory of my dad Edwin, 51 who shot himself in 1965 and my son Pete, 25 who did the same in 2012. Passage involved many hours with all sides at the table to craft a bill with strong due process protections that the NRA did not oppose. I gave this testimony before the House and Senate Judiciary committees:
My hope in speaking to you here today is that you will give families whose loved ones pose a danger to themselves or others one more way to save them. Over 250 Marylanders shoot themselves each year. Many of them signal their intent to die to their loved ones. Family members are on the front lines of this battle. We are often the first to see the warning signs.
People claim suicide is inevitable, that it is not preventable. I hear people say, “If someone is determined to kill themselves and you take away their guns, they will just find another way.” But that’s NOT what the research shows. Removing firearms is simple, quick, inexpensive and effective at saving many lives.
My father was an Army Master Sergeant who fought in WWII. In late August, 1965, my mother knew my dad was contemplating suicide. He went out and bought a handgun. He laid out his will and his life insurance policies. If there had been a way back then for my mom to have dad’s gun taken away, maybe he could have been saved long enough to get the help he needed. Instead, my mom raised us five kids, then ages 5 – 15 by herself.
I don’t know what demons my fathers succumbed to at age 51, nor do I judge him, but I know that his last act sent a shock wave that has reverberated throughout my family for over 50 years.
I was at work on a Friday morning in April, 2012 when a police officer called, asked my name and if I was Peter’s mother. He then asked, “Why would he do this?” I asked, “Do what?” He replied, “Shoot himself.”
Peter was just 25 years old. He’d graduated two years earlier from college with honors. He worked as an environmental scientist. He loved music, played soccer and hiked the Appalachian Trail with his brother and friends. With his girlfriend of five years, he’d recently bought a home which they quickly filled with pets. He bought a new car and then, for protection, he bought a handgun. Less than a year later, Peter wrote me and his girlfriend notes of love and apology, walked to the woods, called police and shot himself.
Maybe if my mom had been able to get a protective order, my dad would have set a better example for Peter to follow. He would have known it’s OK for a grown man to ask for help and get treatment for mental illness, just as he would for any physical illness.
I’ve noticed that many domestic violence abusers and mass shooters are known to be suicidal before they turn homicidal. Family members need this power to stop any escalation to lethal violence by removing guns from those in danger of hurting themselves or others.
Please give Maryland families one more chance than my family got to intervene and break the cycle of violence whose devastating effects can last for generations.
The MD Psychiatric Society, the MD chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, MD Sheriff’s Association and many other groups weighed in. Also informing these discussions:
–The 2017 American Bar Association Resolution 118B in support of these laws,
— University of Virginia’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy Vol. 36 Issue 2 Summer 2017 Mental Health Law 50+ page article on Gun Violence Restraining Orders
— Duke University’s Dr. Jeffrey Swanson and team’s 2017 study of the 18-year Implementation and Effectiveness of Connecticut’s Risk Based Gun Removal Law
This “red flag” bill gained traction with bipartisan support after Parkland’s mass shooting, the fatal shooting of a young teen girl at Great Mills High School in southern Maryland by an ex-boyfriend, and that of an off duty police officer killed when he intervened in a domestic assault by a man known to be violent.
Maryland’s law is a model for other states. Most states’ laws currently do not consider danger to self as justification for a protection order, only danger to others can result in firearm removal. Since 1999 in Connecticut, risk warrants have been used most often for suicide prevention which is not surprising since most gun deaths in the US are suicides. In case this could help you in your state, here is a copy of the final enrolled bill. A clean copy won’t be available until it’s added to the Annotated Code of Maryland.
No one thing can save everyone from suicide, but this law will save many. People need to know that access to a gun and ammunition triples the risk of suicide. Asking two questions: “Are you thinking of suicide?” and “Do you have access to a gun?” could make all the difference. Gun safety practices and laws that keep loaded firearms away from minors and suicidal adults have proven effective at reducing the terrible toll suicide takes.
A Navy veteran, Dorothy Paugh losts her father to suicide as a young girl. In 2012, her middle son followed in his footsteps. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.