Washington gun laws offer stronger protections against school shootings

May 26, 2022, 3:05 PM | Updated: 3:06 pm
Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)...
Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

When tragedies like the Texas elementary school shooting happen, parents everywhere are horrified and wonder whether it could happen at their child’s school next. Unfortunately, the short answer is yes. It could happen anywhere. However, in Washington, lawmakers and elected officials believe students are better protected than in most other states because of several new gun laws passed in recent years.

“In response to some of these things over the last decade, we’ve invested more in school counseling, we’re trying to do better on mental health supports for kids,” said Senator David Frockt (D), who has been a leader in strengthening Washington State’s gun laws in recent years.

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Frockt was behind a bill in 2018 that would have done a variety of things to bolster protection for students, including raising the age to buy assault rifles in Washington from 18 to 21. That bill never moved, but that following November, voters approved I-1639 which virtually mirrored Frockt’s bill and the legal age to buy assault weapons was raised to 21.

Frockt also was the architect of our state’s red flag law known as Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPO), which allows police or family members and loved ones to petition the court to temporarily remove a person’s guns under a civil protection order if they are exhibiting certain concerning behaviors such as being obsessed with mass shootings, or talking about hurting themselves or others.

While Frockt’s ERPO bill failed, the issue went to voters again, who approved the law in 2016 with an approximately 80% approval rate among Washington voters.

The King County Prosecutor’s Office is the only office in the state to have a dedicated ERPO unit and leads the local effort on assisting those in need of ERPOs as well as helping law enforcement agencies around the state in need of ERPO assistance.

“If you know somebody who is obsessed with firearms obsessed with school shootings makes concerning comments about mass violence, that might be the kind of case where an ERPO was appropriate,” explained King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. “Quite often, in the aftermath of these mass shootings, there will be friends and family who will say yeah, we thought something was wrong. But nothing could be done. That’s not the case. You’re in Washington. Something can be done.”

And even though they are not old enough to buy a gun, ERPOs can be requested for minors.

“Well, sometimes minors have access to their parent’s gun, sometimes they somehow get their own guns,” said Satterberg. “It doesn’t matter how old the person is, we can still get an ERPO. And a judge can order the police to take away that gun temporarily, usually for a year.”

Satterberg says in many cases, they have found people do not want their guns back after that year is up. Two out of three ERPOs they see are related to suicidal ideation, according to Satterberg.

“It’s a timeout that can help prevent a horrific tragedy like we saw in Texas,” said Satterberg,

“There is plenty of due process involved in this and two different hearings,” explained Satterberg, adding that his office often has to meet the standard of showing there is imminent danger to get a judge to sign off.

If you know someone exhibiting the concerning signs that might warrant an ERPO petition, Satterberg says the first thing to do is learn more about the state’s ERPO law.

“You can [also] call your local police and suggest [an ERPO]. It’s not criminal, you’re not making a criminal referral, but you’re saying, can you help me access this simple tool, which can temporarily take a firearm away from somebody who shouldn’t have one during their moment of crisis?” said Satterberg. “That’s all this does, it allows us to have a timeout and to deal with whatever their mental health issues might be. And then, a year later, they can get their gun back if they want it. But that year, we have learned is the year that can save lives.”

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Frockt says the increase in the age requirement to buy a gun and the ERPO law put Washington ahead of many other states when it comes to mass shootings, yet remains unconvinced it’s enough.

“I am not confident,” said Frockt. “I am of the belief that we have done some things to make it somewhat less likely, in some respects, but I am not. I am not confident that any of these things alone can keep everyone safe.

“I think we’ve got to change. We’ve got to have a change in culture. We’ve got to have a change in culture,” he added.

Frockt says the necessary change in laws across the U.S. won’t come until voters start holding elected officials accountable.

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here

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Washington gun laws offer stronger protections against school shootings