Mary Ann Thompson: Extreme risk laws can save lives

I’ve learned the painful way that life can radically change in an instant. More than 30 years ago, I found a half-written suicide note on my younger brother’s kitchen counter. I had already been concerned about Rick’s mental health, but discovering the note made me singularly focused on finding a way to have the shotguns he owned removed from his home.

I went to nearby emergency rooms, spoke to police officers, and met with law enforcement. Nobody could help me. They said they didn’t have the legal authority to take away Rick’s guns.

Despite my dire efforts to save my baby brother from himself, he ultimately died by suicide a short time later.

Nothing can bring Rick back, but this year Utah lawmakers have an opportunity to save lives in similar situations, by giving law enforcement a way to intervene when there are clear warning signs someone is in crisis. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have already done this by passing legislation creating extreme risk protection orders. It’s past time for Utah to do the same.

All too often, including with Rick, gun violence is preceded by clear warning signs that a person could be a threat to themselves or others. Under an extreme risk law, Utah law enforcement officers with evidence that someone poses an extreme risk could petition a court for an extreme risk protection order temporarily removing that person’s firearms. After reviewing the petition, a judge would be able to issue such an order, which typically lasts one year.

Under federal and Utah law, there is currently no way to keep guns out of the hands of someone showing dangerous warning signs if they are not already prohibited from possessing guns. An extreme risk law in Utah would help fill this gap, helping keep our families and our communities safe and buying time for people in crisis to get help. This is a common-sense measure with overwhelming public support: More than two-thirds of Utahns agree that we should keep guns out of the hands of people who are in danger of hurting themselves or others.

Extreme risk laws have already been proven to save lives. In Connecticut, enforcement of the state’s extreme risk law was associated with a 14 percent reduction in the state’s firearm suicide rate. In Indiana, the firearm suicide rate has decreased by 7.5 percent.

What’s more, Utah's gun suicide rate ranks among the 10 highest in the nation. In a moment of crisis, access to a gun can be the difference between life and death. About 90 percent of suicide attempts using a gun end in death, compared to four percent of suicide attempts that do not involve a firearm. Passage of an extreme risk law in our state could meaningfully save lives like Rick’s.

An analysis by Everytown for Gun Safety found that 54 percent of those who committed mass shootings showed warning signs beforehand, including the shooters who carried out the mass shootings in Parkland, Fla., and Isla Vista, Calif. This underscores how extreme risk laws can help prevent tragedies, and it helps explain why states across the political spectrum are enacting these laws. In fact, 12 extreme risk laws have been passed since the tragic shooting in Parkland in 2018.

Extreme risk legislation can save lives in Utah. Had something like this been in place when Rick was still alive, perhaps he would still be with us. That’s why I will be joining other volunteers with Moms Demand Action and activists fighting for safer communities in pushing our state legislators to pass an extreme risk law this session. The stakes are too high not to.

Mary Ann Thompson

Mary Ann Thompson is a volunteer leader with the Utah chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and a survivor of gun violence. Thompson’s brother, Richard (Rick) Beazer, died by gun suicide on Dec. 10, 1987. Thompson has been with the Utah chapter of Moms Demand Action since March 2018.