When police were called to a residence in Vancouver’s Maplewood neighborhood on June 12, they were familiar with the address — it’s one they had been called to at least five times in the past three days.
The woman at the home had previously claimed to be seeing people that officers had determined were not there. This time, though, the woman came to the front door and raised a loaded handgun at responding officers.
She was taken into a mental health hold, but police have since taken further steps to ensure she and others are safe by removing the weapons from her home through an extreme risk protection order.
The order is one of the first of its kind issued in Clark County.
Last November, Washington voters approved Initiative 1491, which created a legal process that limits firearms access to people found to be a danger to themselves or others.
The law, which went into effect in December, allows law enforcement, family members and household members of a person in crisis to ask a judge to temporarily limit the person’s access to firearms.
Once the petition is signed by a judge, the protection order is served to the respondent, at which time law enforcement seizes the guns. The court then must hold a hearing within 14 days, when the respondent has a chance to make his or her case. If the person is determined to pose a serious risk to himself or others, the judge can extend the protection order for up to one year.
Within the past two months, three extreme risk protection orders have been issued in Clark County. Vancouver police have petitioned for all of the protection orders against residents who have access to firearms and who reportedly made suicidal threats or who showed signs of mental instability and brandished a gun, according to court records. There were no arrests or crimes alleged in the cases.
Law enforcement can already seize a firearm when they have a warrant to do so, when the weapon is believed to be used in a crime or is evidence in a crime, and for safe keeping following their response to a suicidal person.
Vancouver Assistant Police Chief Chris Sutter said that the new protection orders add a layer of accountability to police work.
“It gives a judicial review behind law enforcement going into someone’s life and seizing their weapons,” Sutter said. “In cases where somebody has made threats and has a history of mental health issues, this petition to the court through a protection order process affords more due process to have this reviewed by a judge and approved.”
Initiative 1491 was citizen-sponsored but backed by the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, which raised more than $4 million for the cause.
Renee Hopkins, the organization’s CEO, said that after having success in 2014 with passing a law mandating background checks on all gun sales and transfers, the next emerging policy aimed at getting guns away from those who pose a risk and already have them.
Hopkins said when it comes to tragedies involving firearms — such as suicides, mass shootings and domestic violence homicides — there are usually warning signs prior to the violence. In Washington state, suicides make up 80 percent of firearm deaths.
“In our work, we hear from so many people … heartbreaking stories of family members who felt really powerless to protect their loved ones,” she said. “That’s compelling. It’s important to listen to people closest to crisis situations and help them get the tools that they can use to protect their loved ones.”
The organization tried twice to get the law passed through the state legislature, but after that didn’t work they pivoted and sent the decision straight to voters.
The initiative garnered the support of 64 percent of Clark County’s voters and passed into law with 69 percent approval across the state.
Hopkins said that the Alliance for Gun Responsibility isn’t tracking the use of the protection orders, but that they are hearing good things anecdotally across the state. She’s inspired to also learn that nearly 20 other states are considering a similar law.
“We’re getting a general sense that this tool will help save lives,” she said.
The National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action did not return a request for an interview for this story. However, the organization posted its opposition to the initiative on its website, saying that “a person’s rights disappear merely on the say-so of someone else.”
Other organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, remained neutral about the initiative, with reasons including that the initiative had vague criteria and placed the burden of proof on the accused.
Sutter said that extreme risk protection orders aren’t very commonly used by police, but that they are important in that they add another avenue for safety.
“It gives law enforcement an extra tool to take weapons from people who the court has determined to be an extreme risk,” he said. “When you have people that are in a state of mental crisis and they’re in possession of firearms, it’s highly unpredictable what’s going to happen.”