Earlier this year, in the course of four days, four people in Montgomery County killed themselves using a firearm.
“It shocked the community,” Blacksburg Police Chief Anthony Wilson said Wednesday. “We seemed to be in a downward spiral. Mental health is a big business for us.”
Wilson said the “saturation of guns and availability of guns” has exacerbated the consequences of people suffering from mental illnesses. To try and come up with possible solutions, he’s been speaking with Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, Southwest Virginia’s regional chair of the “Safe Virginia Initiative” task force, developed in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting with a focus on gun control and school safety.
At a session on Wednesday in Lexington, law enforcement officials, commonwealth attorneys and policymakers brainstormed on reducing suicides and violence by removing firearms from people. The goal is a legislative proposal for next year’s General Assembly session.
Specifically, Hurst wanted to learn more from those in the room about what an “extreme risk protective order” law would look like.
Other states have created variations of this so-called “red flag” law, which gives judges discretion to remove guns from people not convicted of a crime if they show signs they might shoot themselves or someone else.
Police or state attorneys can petition a judge for such an order, and if granted, the person named typically has 24 hours to turn over all guns to law enforcement or to a third party, which can hold the guns for up to a year. The ultimate aim is to incentivize the person to seek mental health treatment.
A bill proposed during this year’s legislative session would have allowed a version of that policy, but didn’t make it out of the House of Delegates’ Courts of Justice Committee.
Law enforcement officials in rural Western Virginia localities said they were conflicted about extreme risk protection orders. They said they support the idea of quickly removing firearms from people for safety reasons, but have logistical concerns.
Would police departments have enough storage space to hold firearms? What happens when there are numerous guns in the home belonging to multiple people besides the person posing a risk?
In smaller localities, law enforcement officials said they would need at least two or more officers to remove guns from a house, which can mean pulling most of the officers away from patrol duty. One law enforcement official suggested needing a SWAT team’s involvement if there are numerous guns and hostile people.
Officials said they already feel overwhelmed by other duties the state has thrust upon them, such as the hours spent with transporting people who have been issued a temporary custody order to a mental health facility.
“What we fear most in law enforcement is we ultimately end up as the last stop for most people,” Wilson said. “We take on a lot of responsibility with not a lot of backup.”
More states are approving or considering versions of red flag laws, and early research has shown promising results in curbing suicide by firearm, said Nicky Zamostny, assistant secretary at the state Office of the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security.
“We’re seeing bipartisan support nationwide,” Zamostny said.
The General Assembly this year killed a number of gun control bills, including proposals to require universal background checks on gun purchases and a ban on bump stocks.
Republican leaders in the House of Delegates created a select committee, made up of 12 Republicans and 10 Democrats and chaired by House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, to study school safety without focusing on guns. Its next meeting is July 11 at Meadowbrook High School in Chesterfield County. It will review state and local policies on school security and make recommendations for the 2019 legislative session.
Still, Hurst is optimistic that lawmakers can find common ground on how to reduce firearm-related deaths and injuries.
“The main debate is this: right to firearm ownership over having a society use laws to try and save lives,” Hurst said. “There’s a balance between that, and we need, if this law gets passed, to make sure we judiciously balance someone’s right to due process with their right to live.