Gehrke: If we want to reduce suicide in Utah, this red flag bill is a good place to start

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

A psychiatrist told me a story recently about a patient he was concerned could turn violent and hurt himself or someone else.

But legally, his hands were tied. This patient didn’t meet the standards for a civil commitment. Then one day, the man bought a gun, took it home and pulled the trigger.

Fortunately, the bullet only went through the wall of the apartment complex and neither he nor anyone else was hurt. But this anecdote illustrates a gap in our laws, a gap that allows people to possess the tools to do irreparable harm even when friends, family and sometimes even law enforcement know they pose a risk to themselves or others.

It’s a hole that Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, will once again try to close. His bill, HB209, would allow family or law enforcement to ask a court to issue an “extreme risk protective order.” That would let law enforcement temporarily take an individual’s guns.

In other states, they are called red flag laws.

Connecticut has had this sort of thing on the books for almost 20 years, and studies have found that they have been effective in deterring suicide. These red flag laws really gained attention after the Parkland, Fla., high school massacre. Within the past few months, Maryland, Delaware and Illinois have enacted one and New Jersey’s version takes effect in September.

Last year, even the head of the National Rifle Association said it was not opposed to red flag laws, provided there are safeguards in place for gun owners.

When Handy originally proposed his red flag bill at the end of the 2018 session, he met predictable resistance from gun rights groups and legislators who raised a variety of concerns about the process and level of proof needed to obtain such a court order.

One lawmaker questioned why the bill focused on guns, but left a dangerous person with access to knives or rope. The answer is obvious to anyone who takes five seconds to think about it and was borne out in data from a comprehensive study of more than 2,500 Utah suicide cases over the past decade.

What researchers found is that gunshot is not only the most common way people die by suicide, but it is also the most lethal. In 2016, for example, a firearm was the instrument of choice in half of all suicides in the state. And suicide attempts with a gun end a life nearly 87 percent of the time. To put that into context, suffocation (like hanging) results in death only about half as often.

Last June, the Utah Safe Schools Commission, made up of educators, law enforcement, students and the state’s top gun-rights lobbyist gathered together post-Parkland and they made extreme risk protective orders one of their top priorities.

Utahns seem to grasp the logic. Check out my colleague Bethany Rodgers’ report on the latest poll from The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics, which found that 68 percent of Utahns — including 58 percent of Republicans — support enactment of a red flag law.

Handy told me recently he has worked to address the due process concerns raised last year. It has been, he said, the hardest piece of legislation he has ever sponsored. He has, to his credit, landed in a good place.

Though, I think, there are two additions Handy should make to his bill: First, there should be a requirement that individuals subject to an extreme risk protective order get psychiatric care. It was part of the Utah Safe Schools Commission’s recommendation and makes sense, because it is the only way to address the underlying issues.

The second, is that mental health professionals and perhaps primary care physicians should be able to petition the court for an order. That’s how Maryland’s law is structured and it makes sense to give trained professionals that avenue of recourse.

Handy’s bill won’t stop every instance of suicide. Unfortunately, nothing can. But in a state that is grappling with a steadily rising rate of suicide, it could save lives and help ensure fewer Utah families have to deal with the loss of a loved one.