Thursday, May 26, 2022

Multiple Barriers Inhibit Civilian Use of Extreme Risk Protection Orders

In many states, civilians can file extreme risk protection orders (ERPOs) to temporarily restrict access to firearms for people who present a risk of harm to themselves or others. Yet multiple barriers hinder civilians from taking this step, according to a report published yesterday in Psychiatric Services.

Interviews with civilians from Washington state who filed ERPOs “highlighted that ERPOs can be a useful tool for people seeking a way to limit access to firearms for people who display dangerous behavior,” wrote Laura Prater, M.P.H., Ph.D., of the Firearm Injury and Policy Research Program at the University of Washington and colleagues. “Although the [participants] noted that the ERPO met its major function of removing the firearm,” many noted the unmet need for linkage to mental health resources when the subjects of the ERPOs are particularly vulnerable, especially when they have expressed suicidal ideation, the authors continued.

As of October 2021, 19 states and the District of Columbia allowed ERPOs, which are commonly filed by law enforcement. In California, Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Washington, civilians, such as partners or family members, are eligible to file an ERPO.

Prater and colleagues interviewed 15 participants who had filed an ERPO in Washington state between December 8, 2016, and September 30, 2020. The researchers asked open-ended questions about the participants’ perceived barriers or facilitators during the ERPO process; their understanding of the process and implications of the ERPO; their perceptions on the effectiveness of the ERPO; and their thoughts on how the process could be improved.

The participants filed ERPOs for their spouses, ex-spouses, siblings, children, and parents. Eight of the subjects of the ERPOs had expressed intentions to harm themselves, seven had represented a potential threat to others, and three represented a threat to harm both themselves and others. The participants identified numerous barriers to filing the ERPO, including the following:

  • A perceived lack of help connecting with social services. Participants reported that the primary motivation for pursuing an ERPO was to protect their family members and others from harm, as well as to connect their family members with mental health services. Yet they expressed a sense of disappointment with the lack of connection to services.
  • Ambiguities with the administrative and legal processes. Participants expressed a lack of clarity on the function of the ERPO, the proper steps to take to file, and how the ERPO would prevent a firearm sale. Additionally, some courthouse workers incorrectly told participants they could not file for an ERPO as a civilian.
  • Feelings of distress. Participants were hindered by the distress they felt, usually related to the initial circumstances that led to the ERPO filing. They also reported that the process felt like a conflict with the family member for whom they were filing the ERPO, and they also perceived that the officials involved in the process had a personal bias against ERPOs.

Participants were facilitated in the ERPO process by their own previous legal experience and informal advocates who helped them, the authors wrote.

“Although continued research may be needed to gain insight into the views of civilian petitioners in other states, we believe that the observations from this study can be applied to make the ERPO filing process more efficient, easier to navigate, and a continued resource for civilians concerned about a loved one’s firearm access,” the authors concluded.

For related information, see the Psychiatric Services article “Preventing Suicide Through Better Firearm Safety Policy in the United States.”

(Image: iStock/Karl-Hendrik Tittel)

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