King County Council examining ways to get guns out of hands of 'potentially violent' people

Collectively, the King County Council is taking a deep dive into new methods aimed at protecting people from gun violence. On Wednesday, the Council heard from experts in preventing domestic violence, suicides and other gun crimes during the first of two roundtable discussions on the matter. 

The roundtable was held in an effort to have an overview of data, public health impacts and relevant laws in response to gun violence. It also looked at the option of getting guns out of the hands of people who have threatened violence in the past, especially domestic abusers. 

"So we have people most likely to violently re-offend disproportionally armed in our community," said Sandra Shanahan, Director of the Regional Domestic Violence Firearms Enforcement Unit.  "When we look at our cases, it’s 40 to 50 percent."

Retired Judge Anne Levinson told the council that American women killed by their intimate partner are most likely to use a gun than other methods combined.

"The research does tell us the best available tool we have to prevent these fatalities is to remove the firearm from the situation," she said.

A woman in the United States is 11 times more likely to be killed by a gun than in other high-income countries, Levinson said.

Washington was one of the first states to pass a voter-approved initiative in 2016 to take guns away from a person who has shown an inclination toward violence or who had a mental health diagnosis. It’s known as an Extreme Risk Protection Order: family members, domestic partners and police can ask a judge for an ERPO against a person to temporarily suspend their access to firearms, though physicians and mental health counselors cannot.

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A recognized expert in gun violence statistics told the council those orders are being "underutilized," especially when it comes to preventing suicides.

"It’s really a matter of how can we prevent people who have intent to harm themselves from having access to guns," said Dr. Frederick P. Rivara, a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington.

According to the latest available data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 74% of gun deaths in Washington state are suicides.

However, one of the biggest blocks the council members have faced in trying to pass local gun safety protections are state lawmakers who have refused to change the state’s very broad preemption laws.

"It’s a lot of legalese, but it does restrict what local governments can do," said Mac Nicholson, Government Relations Director for the Council.

It takes an act of Congress to pass federal gun legislation, but states do have the ability to restrict access to guns in certain situations. State law prevents local county and city lawmakers from doing the same for their jurisdictions.

Should the Council wish to restrict place additional restrictions on gun use and possession in the county, state lawmakers would have to change the state’s preemption law first.

"There have been bills in Olympia that have tried to amend that to give local governments more authority to develop firearm regulations at the local level, but those bills have not passed," Nicholson told the Council.

There will be attempts to change the preemption law when state lawmakers meet starting in January.

The Council will continue its discussion on gun legislation and protections for potential victims on July 20.