Lawmakers are out of touch on gun safety

Katie Lieberman is an Alliance for a Better Utah board member.

Utah lawmakers are clearly out of touch with Utah voters when it comes to suicide prevention. This fact is more evident than ever this legislative session wherein for the third year in a row, despite broad support from communities and stakeholders across the state (even the Republican members of our federal delegation), lawmakers appear poised to kill HB 229, Extreme Risk Protective Order (ERPO) yet again. For those like myself in the field of mental health care and desperate to tackle Utah’s alarming suicide epidemic, the loss of this bill again this session is a devastating blow to the care we know Utah community members desperately need.

For those unfamiliar with ERPO, this bill provides the option for a concerned family member or domestic partner to petition for the temporary removal of a firearm if an individual is deemed high risk for suicide, homicide or is incapacitated from decision-making. The bill has over two decades of data validating its efficacy and has demonstrated clearly that 2nd Amendment protections are not compromised. ERPO’s have been passed in 13 states with several others poised to pass this legislation in 2020. 

Within states that have passed ERPO bills, research shows a reduction in firearm suicides of around one in 1 in 10. That means that for every 10 ERPO’s granted, a life is saved. As a mental health professional, research has clearly shown that over 90% of people who survive a suicide attempt do not go on to die by suicide – even if they attempt suicide by another means. In other words, suicide attempts are often made in impulsive, vulnerable moments that will not be repeated if the attempt fails. In the case of firearm suicide danger, however, the vast majority of those who attempt suicide via this lethal means will indeed complete suicide.  Hence, the pause between imminent risk and access to firearms is crucial. This is the delta where ERPO seeks to intervene.

Many point to the fact that if a person in acute suicidal risk simply seeks help, they will receive behavioral services and do not need ERPO intervention. But, what about those that don’t make it to offices like mine for mental health care? The challenge for my colleagues and myself is that many vulnerable and dangerous circumstances emerge for individuals who are not seeking care and do not intend to seek care. In these circumstances, concerned family members have an impossible challenge where no intervention is currently available. This is the space where HB 229, Extreme Risk Protective Order (ERPO), would offer a pathway to a life-saving intervention. 

If ERPO were to pass, when I receive calls from family members in crisis, I can offer a solution. I could have given hope last year to the mother of a combat veteran who’s adult son was a high-risk suicidal depression or to the father of a son struggling with drug-induced psychosis who had access to firearms at home.  Both had justifiable reasons to panic about the safety of a loved one and I had nothing to offer. However, with ERPO, not only would a path be available for individuals in crisis, but data also shows that 44% of ERPO respondents who had not previously received behavioral health services were able to receive care as a result of this intervention.   

Utah climbed to the notorious distinction of number 5 in the nation in 2019 for death by suicide. One can’t help but wonder how many additional lives will be needlessly ended before Utah lawmakers prioritize the lives of our community members over political misinformation and powerful lobbyists disconnected from the will of the people.

Katie Lieberman is an Alliance for a Better Utah board member.

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