Community Issues

Bills Could Take Guns from "Extreme-Risk" People, What Does it Mean?

A state lawmaker & Pittsburgh council have proposed "extreme risk" gun legislation. What is it, and what could it mean to gun owners and potential victims of violence?

A state lawmaker from Pittsburgh has introduced legislation that would bring what's called Extreme Risk Protection Orders - ERPOs for short - to Pennsylvania, just as Pittsburgh Council prepares for a legal fight over their package of gun bills that also includes them.

Sen. Wayne Fontana's Extreme Risk bill would allow police or family members petition county courts to take guns away from a person who poses an extreme risk to themselves or others . Pittsburgh's package of bills does the same, but also bans certain types of firearms, accessories and ammunition within city limits. Fontana's bill, if adopted, would make Pennsylvania the 15th state with such a law. Pittsburgh's version, if passed, will face a certain court challenge, since state law prohibits individual municipalities from regulating gun ownership.

"It's time that our state law backs families who are trying to protect innocent people while getting their loved ones the help they need," Mr. Fontana said in a news release announcing the introduction of SB 293. Fontana went on to say that if his proposal were in place, it might have prevented the October 27 shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill that killed 11 people.

"Inaction is no longer an option." PA Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline

What is "Extreme Risk" Legislation?

Extreme Risk Prevention Orders (ERPOs) are also known as Gun Violence Restraining Orders (GVROs) or "Red Flag" Laws. They all address the idea that people at-risk for violence shouldn't have access to guns.

The concept of taking guns away from high-risk people first became law in 1999, when Connecticut's Risk Warrant Law gave police legal authority to temporarily take guns away from people who are at significant risk of harming themselves or others. Extreme Risk Laws are different because they also let family members and intimate partners petition for court orders, in a process that's similar to getting a Protection from Abuse Order or PFA.

The first Extreme Risk Law was enacted in California after the deadly shooting on the University of California, Santa Barbara campus in 2014. Police and the shooter's family knew he was dangerous, but couldn't legally do anything. Since then 14 other states have adopted similar laws. ERPOs also typically prevent these people from buying more guns.

While Fontana mentions prevention of mass shootings like Tree of Life as a key reason for his bill, sponsors of Pittsburgh's gun bills say they're just as focused on preventing domestic shootings and suicides. "We are interested in issues surrounding gun violence outside of mass shootings," Councilwoman Erika Strassburger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"In a lot of instances, people are much more likely to harm themselves than they are to harm other people." Erika Strassburger, Pittsburgh Council

Both bills set a high bar for taking away someone's guns. Petitioners would need to provide a sworn affidavit of the danger or risk, and a judge would have to consider things like previous threats or acts of violence, criminal record, or serious mental illness before seizing a person's firearms. The judge could immediately issue an EPRO (for up to a year), dismiss the petition, or schedule a hearing where the subject would have a right to defend themselves.

Fontana's bill would also include strict guidelines about who can file a petition to prevent an innocent person from being targeted as revenge by, say, an angry ex. Pittsburgh is considering similar amendments to their bill.

Arguments For and Against Extreme Risk Laws

Groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence are openly lobbying for Extreme Risk Laws at the state level, and in Congress, where three bills are under consideration. The Brady website calls them "life saving."

The National Rifle Association is strongly opposed. On their website they write: "A law-abiding gun owner could lose their right to own or possess a firearm and then have the burden placed on them to prove the false nature of the petition in order to have their firearms returned."

But even some gun right supporters are having a tough time with this one. Clintonville (PA) Fire Chief Gerry Rea told the Post-Gazette at a recent gun show he has mixed feelings. "If the person is legitimately going to hurt themselves or someone else, then yes." But Rea wondered if police would take proper care of seized guns. Others at the show told the P-G they simply don't trust the government on gun ownership issues.

An effort to introduce a similar Extreme Risk bill in the last session of the state legislature never made it out of committee.

If you'd like to contact your state lawmaker to support or oppose Extreme Risk, click here to find out how.

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