Elected leaders, judges, law enforcement, attorneys, and local and national partners gathered last week for a roundtable discussion on how to publicize a new tool meant to prevent someone who poses a significant threat to themselves or others from accessing a gun.
Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPO) -- also called gun violence restraining orders -- were established by Senate Bill 719 in the 2017 legislative session. The law allows the courts to temporarily prohibit a person from having guns or any deadly weapon if law enforcement officers, family or household members can show the individual poses a significant danger to themselves or others.
“People need to know that this is an option,” stressed Chair Deborah Kafoury, who convened the Friday, Feb. 9, roundtable. “There is no perfect solution, but this is one that we think can save lives.”
Multnomah County Judge Maureen McKnight said the statute requires clear and convincing evidence that someone is at risk in the near future of suicide or harming others imminently with a deadly weapon.
The courts must find it "highly probable that this risk exists,” McKnight explained. “The order means no possession of firearms or other deadly weapons and the person must surrender any firearms and any other deadly weapons as well as a concealed handgun license.”
Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill said someone can qualify for an extreme risk order even if they’re already affected by pre-existing restraining orders, from orders granted as part of the Family Abuse Prevention Act (FAPA), to protections for elderly and disabled persons, against stalking, and for victims of sex abuse.
A person subject to an ERPO must surrender any firearms and other deadly weapons within 24 hours to a law enforcement officer or agency, a licensed Oregon gun dealer or an eligible third party who may lawfully possess firearms.
The order lasts for one year unless it’s terminated by the court. It can be renewed by a judge when there is clear and convincing evidence that the risk still exists.
Respondents can contest the original order and request a hearing. They can also contest requests to renew an order.
“They have 30 days to do so,“ said McKnight.
A hearing must be held within 21 days after the respondent files a hearing request.
During the 30-day period in which a respondent may request a hearing, an ERPO is in effect, and is enforceable by holding the respondent in contempt of court. This continues throughout the court’s 21-day window to provide the hearing.
Once a hearing happens and the order is upheld or if a respondent fails to request a hearing, the order becomes final. And possessing a firearm or other deadly weapon or concealed weapons permit, or attempting to possess a deadly weapon, becomes a Class A misdemeanor.
Friday morning, city, state and county leaders gathered to discuss ways to improve and increase awareness among local law enforcement and the public.
Concerns were raised about the primarily civil process and other issues including unregistered or untraceable firearms and how to remove, or “dispossess” a gun from a respondent.
“I’m very interested in our experience and ways to improve it,” said Underhill, who helped forge the legislation. “There’s a need to establish a strong gun dispossession process in the county.”
“You can make things worse by being confrontational about the process of dispossession,” said Chief Deputy District Attorney Charles Sparks. “We’re working to dispossess someone in a trauma-informed way.”
Chief Deputy Jason Gates of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office said police officers will be able to see that someone’s concealed weapon permit is invalid as soon as temporary order information goes into the Law Enforcement Data System (LEDS).
“So it’s incredibly valuable when that original order is issued,” said Sparks.
Clinical psychologist Doreen Dodgen-Magee spoke to the group as part of the Everytown for Gun Safety Survivor Network.
“My sister-in-law Laura was married for eight years before the story I’m going to tell you,” said Dodgen-Magee. “She had my two nieces, Sarah and Rachel. They were my first nieces.”
Over time, throughout the marriage, Dodgen-Magee said, the family began to see difficult and troubling behavior. Her sister-in-law gradually began to disclose stories of emotional abuse.
“She was concerned enough that she began to tell us some very pointed stories that enabled her to move out,” Dodgen-Magee said.
Laura Whitson left her Washington home and took her two daughters to her mother’s home in Scotts Mills. But Whitson wasn’t yet willing to seek a restraining order against her husband, David, Dodgen-Magee said.
“It culminated when Dave broke into their house, raped her and this resulted in a pregnancy,” Dodgen-Magee said
A restraining order followed, but it came with supervised, scheduled visits with the children.
“Dave was angry that he didn’t get to be a part of Sarah’s first day at kindergarten,” said Dodgen-Magee. “He was angry and off-kilter. We did not believe at that point he had access to a weapon but he came back with a weapon.”
“Dave shot his way into the house with a rifle. My mother-in-law, Sarah, Rachel and baby April (6 months) were hiding in a bathroom --they ran outside. He ran out and shot them all. My mother-in-law was shot in the arm but survived.”
Scotts Mills, a town of fewer than 400 residents at the time, was traumatized. That included the girls’ cousin, who also witnessed the crime scene.
David Whitson was convicted for the 1995 murders of Laura Whitson and their children. He was sentenced to life in prison but died by suicide in prison the following year.
“I would love to help in any way to prevent this thing from happening to anyone else,” Dodgen-Magee said.
Extreme risk protection orders are not new but are slowly gaining attention.
Oregon enacted its law in 2017, Washington in 2016 and California in 2014. Indiana and Connecticut have similar laws, as well.
“The state that has had the law the longest is Connecticut,” said Ann Kirkwood, suicide intervention coordinator with the Oregon Health Authority.
Research by Dr. Jeffrey Swanson of Duke University estimates that over a 15-year period, “for every 10
to 11 gun removal cases collected,” Kirkwood said, “one person's life was saved.”
“Nearly a third of those people who were subject to an order actually went into mental health treatment because of it,” said Kirkwood.
Proponents stressed access to guns makes the difference in life-and-death situations.
Loved ones and law enforcement officers are often the first to see the signs.
Advocates stressed the importance of law enforcement and the community familiarizing themselves with the law.
They also believe Extreme Risk Protection Orders can serve as an intervention for gun violence, such as mass shootings, where numerous warning signs are often present.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, an analysis of mass shootings in the United States from 2009 to 2016 revealed that in least 42 percent of those incidents, there is documentation that
the attacker exhibited dangerous warning signs before the shooting.
Young Nelson, who serves on the research team for Everytown for Gun Safety, noted that according to documents released by the F.B.I. on the Sandy Hook shooting, the shooter had
previously threatened to kill his mother and children at Sandy Hook Elementary School years before.
“According to the F.B.I., a neighbor had contacted local law enforcement when he overheard a conversation about the shooter’s plan to kill his mother and children at the elementary school."
Nelson said, “Even though Connecticut’s law had been in effect for over a decade, law enforcement, at the time, said there was nothing they could do. The guns the shooter
had access to were his mother's guns. We see this as an example of the importance of education and awareness about the law’s existence for effective implementation."
“It’s never easy to get gun legislation passed in Salem,” Chair Kafoury said. “But this is such an important issue. We need to make sure we are doing everything we can to protect lives.”