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Regional Interests

Study: Oregon’s red flag law working as intended, slow to be adopted

A study of Oregon’s extreme risk protection order law found the tool is working as intended but suggests wide adoption has been slow.

The law, colloquially known as a red flag law or an ERPO, went into effect in 2018 and allows law enforcement, spouses, immediate family, or household members to petition a judge for temporary restrictions on purchasing or possessing firearms if they fear a person poses a risk to themselves or others. The individual the ERPO is filed against, known as the respondent, has 30 days to contest the order.

Oregon is one of 19 states, along with the District of Columbia, with similar laws on the books. The study, led by Michigan State University associate professor April Zoeli, sought to identify how the law was being used across the state and whether the characteristics of respondents differed depending on who was petitioning for the order; law enforcement of family members. It looked at all 93 ERPO petitions filed in the first 15 months after the law was implemented. During that time, 22 of Oregon’s 36 counties had at least one petition filed.

The study found that 75% of people requesting a risk protection order reported the person in question had a history of interpersonal violence. And 73% had a reported history of suicidality. Half of those had threatened to take their lives with a firearm. The study also found that half of the respondents had threatened or attempted to take their life and also threatened or used violence against others, a higher rate than was found in similar studies conducted in other states.

The three quarters of petitions involving interpersonal violence was noteworthy. States with similar laws, like Connecticut and Indiana, saw a substantially lower share of orders for similar circumstances.

Data from the study suggest the laws are being used as intended.

“The petitions often included information stating that they were filed within days of a threat or use of violence, suggesting that ERPOs are, indeed, being used in times of imminent crisis,” the study reads.

Most of the 93 petitions filed in the first 15 months were by law enforcement, but at only 65%, that share is substantially lower than in other states like Washington and California that similarly allow civilians to file petitions. In California, 96% of petitions were filed by law enforcement and 87% in Washington.

One hypothesis the authors suggest is there may be differences in how the state communicates the availability of the orders or law enforcement’s willingness to use them.

The researchers also found red flag laws may have lesser known applications.

In only a quarter of the cases, a petition was filed for people who did not yet own a firearm with the intention of preventing them from acquiring one.

“This use of ERPO may be overlooked by policymakers and other stakeholders because ERPOs are more commonly thought of as a tool to remove guns from dangerous individuals than as a tool to prevent gun purchase by dangerous individuals,” the authors wrote.

In the 15 months covered by the study, petitions had been filed in only 22 of Oregon’s 36 counties, suggesting slow adoption in the law’s early days.

“The number of ERPO petitions in Oregon and the number of counties without a single petition in the first 15 months of the law suggest that ERPOs may be an underused tool,” said Jennifer Paruk, a doctoral student in criminal justice at MSU, who co authored the study. “Greater dissemination of public information about ERPOs could increase their appropriate use so high-risk individuals and their families could benefit, especially when dangerous individuals are prevented from purchasing guns.”

That’s already happening. By the end of April 2021, 28 counties had processed at least one ERPO petition. In total, 387 petitions have been filed statewide and 306 have been granted.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting