It’s not uncommon for Pennsylvania’s 253-member General Assembly to shower deserved praise on active and retired members of the U.S, Armed Services, or to solemnly honor those who have fallen in the line of duty.
But when state lawmakers here were given a real opportunity to help service members and veterans recently, they flubbed it in the worst way possible.
On June 13, the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee effectively buried a package of gun violence-reduction bills, mainly authored by Democrats, by exiling them to an unrelated House panel where their chance of receiving a vote is almost nonexistent.
One of those bills seeks to authorize the creation of extreme risk protection orders, which allow for the temporary, court-ordered seizure of someone’s weapons if it’s shown that they pose an immediate danger to themselves or to others.
Such orders, popularly known as a “red flag” law, have been shown to prevent firearms suicides, based on analysis of data in two states, Indiana and Connecticut, where they are on the books, according to a CNN fact-check.
The proposals enjoy bipartisan backing and preserve due process. That’s because petitioners seeking to seize weapons, usually law enforcement or family, must meet a burden of proof.
Gun owners are allowed to contest the orders in the case of the long-term seizure of someone’s weapons, as legal scholars Joseph Blocher and Jake Charles wrote in a Washington Post op-ed earlier this month. And the courts, they add, have not seen any constitutional issue.
The numbers also have shown that veterans are particularly at-risk for firearms suicides, and thus stand to benefit the most from the laws.
Nationwide, about 17 veterans die by suicide every day, and 12 die by a self-inflicted firearm injury, according to RISE: Veterans, a Pennsylvania-based advocacy group.
Of the 498 suicide deaths among service members in 2019, 318, or 64 percent, involved a firearm, the group said, citing 2020 U.S. Department of Defense data. And while veterans comprise around 7 percent of the nation’s adult population, they account for 18 percent of the country’s gun suicide deaths, the group said.
The emergency orders “do not strip the rights of veterans,” and they prevent “permanent restrictions” on firearms ownership, the group’s executive director, Aryanna Wagner, a veteran, wrote in a letter to state policymakers.
The red flag laws, which also enjoy popular support, “provide law enforcement officials with a formal, legal process for an order to temporarily remove guns from dangerous situations,” Wagner wrote. “ … It is our hope that Pennsylvania legislators are serious about addressing the epidemic of veteran suicide, and support a legal tool to protect our community of veterans in the commonwealth.”
Unfortunately, there’s no evidence the red flag law bill will be brought to a vote anytime soon.
Todd Stephens, a Republican state representative and a former prosecutor, said that while the Pennsylvania General Assembly has focused much of its attention on cracking down on gun crime in the commonwealth’s largest cities, it has done vanishingly little to address the issue of firearms suicide.
If his colleagues were serious, he added, Republicans, who mainly represent the state’s vast rural middle, would realize that this is an issue that hits them in their own wheelhouse, since suicide deaths are rising in rural Pennsylvania.
“Suicide is the larger problem where we haven’t focused enough attention,” Stephens said. “We need another tool in our toolbox.”
What’s particularly galling about the Pennsylvania legislature’s lack of action is that the gun reform framework now before lawmakers on Capitol Hill incentivizes states to pass such laws. That language, however, had reportedly emerged as a sticking point in negotiations.
But I’ll turn to the data again: Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have red flag laws in place, according to Marketplace. And for every 10 to 20 red flag orders that are issued, you avert one suicide, NPR reported, citing data compiled by a researcher at the University of California, Davis.
That may not sound like a lot. But for the family and loved ones of a veteran thinking about suicide, that’s the difference between an empty place at the table, or having them with you.
Passing a red flag law is the best, and most effective, way lawmakers can honor the service of veterans and the people who wear the uniform. The aid from Washington only will help.
Pennsylvania and other states should not pass it up.