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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

Should People In Crisis Have Guns? States Look To Limit Their Access

Judy Amabile believes that if Colorado enacts an Extreme Risk Protection Order bill, it could help prevent her son from buying a gun.
Leigh Paterson, KUNC
Judy Amabile believes that if Colorado enacts an Extreme Risk Protection Order bill, it could help prevent her son from buying a gun.

Judy Amabile has a crumpled sleeping bag laid out on the porch of her bright, beautiful home in downtown Boulder, Colorado.

"My son isn't supposed to come in the house when he's been drinking. That's why we have this sleeping bag out here," she explained. "Anybody else would look at that and think uh, what? But for us it's like…That’s life."

Life with Amabile's son, 26, can be a struggle; the problem isn’t only alcohol abuse. He has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, she says, so many diagnoses that she just isn’t sure what's wrong.

"A year and half ago, he started expressing this idea that he would like to get a gun and kill himself with it," Amabile said.

At Amabile's request, we agreed not to use her son's name in this story, out of concern for his well-being.

Because of her son's condition, Amabile is pushing for the Colorado legislature to pass an Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) bill this session. Extreme risk laws, also known as red flag laws, vary across states but, generally, allow family members and law enforcement to petition a judge for an order that allows the temporary removal of firearms from a person who is exhibiting potential dangerous behavior. These orders often also prohibit them from buying new guns.

After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last year, eight states passed some version of an extreme risk law. Now, at least 13 states and the District of Columbia have some version of a law that prevents people in crisis from accessing guns.

While this kind of legislation usually follows a high profile shooting, experts say extreme risk laws are most often used for suicide prevention.

A new study published in the journal Psychiatry found that these laws in Indiana and Connecticut may have prevented hundreds of firearm suicides, though suicides by other methods did increase.

In Colorado, House democrats are planning to introduce an ERPO bill during this year's legislative session.

'We Wept With Fear'

An extreme risk protection order is not just theory, for Amabile. Months ago, Amabile noticed a charge from a local gun shop on her son's debit card statement. When she called, the shop explained that the charge was equal to the cost of a background check. Her son has just threatened to hurt himself. Amabile and her ex-husband were so concerned, they went to the gun store to plead with the owner.

"We wept with fear about how close he was to killing himself," Amabile said. "We asked the guy 'Please, please don’t sell him this gun.'"

He agreed.

Although that immediate crisis was averted, Amabile wants more options for keeping a gun out of her son's hands. He would be prohibited if he were convicted of a felony or adjudicated 'mentally defective.' Despite her son's mental health issues, Amabile has not found an appropriate way to prohibit him from buying a gun.

Amabile's son has been hospitalized multiple times. He has also attempted suicide using other, non-firearm methods and survived. That’s why she sees an ERPO bill as particularly important. "Because if he succeed in getting a gun, and he attempted suicide with a gun, the chances that he would be successful are so much higher," she said. "Nothing else works as well."

Extreme Risk Law In Action

Connecticut enacted an extreme risk-type law in 1999. State records show that the measure is used in all kinds of situations: violent threats against school officials, coworkers, wives, girlfriends, children and especially in cases of self-harm. In the first ten years the law was in place, in over half of all cases the complaint that initiated the process focused on the risk of suicide.

Detective Anthony Demonte, a police detective with the Wethersfield Connecticut Police Department deals with the state's gun seizure law mostly in situations related to domestic violence and suicide.

Imagine, he says, an elderly man, bleeding from both wrists, not making any sense, living in a house in disarray.

"This person can’t take care of themselves and now there’s evidence they’ve hurt themselves," Demonte said.

If Demonte was to find that the man had guns registered to him, Demonte would try to get a risk warrant and remove them.

"In the example that I gave, they could hurt themselves, they could hurt others," he said. "If we have the opportunity to take that out of the equation, at least we can do that."

For some, however, the removal process is problematic. An ERPO bill died in the Colorado legislature last year, in part, because of concerns about the rights of gun owners and due process under the law. One state senator said that the bill could be a good thing but that taking guns away from people with no proof or due process was "a very slippery slope."

Generally, soon after an ERPO is issued, the individual in question has a hearing and can ask for their guns back. The judge can then extend the temporary order, or deny it.

Balancing Risks And Rights

Judy Amabile says friends said the same thing to her recently.

"'You know, they’re gonna start to regulate this and regulate that,'" Amabile said friends told her, "'it’s a slippery slope of getting gun rights taken away, generally.' I don’t think it's a slippery slope. I think this is a very discreet piece of legislation that will actually, potentially save lives."

For Amabile, any potential risks far outweigh the benefits.

"Why does your right to have a firearm trump somebody else's right to be protected from themselves in a moment of crisis?" Amabile asked. "Whose rights are more important?"

In Colorado, a state with a high suicide rate and a strong history of gun ownership, this is one of the key questions that will be up for debate this legislative session.

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.