On Dec. 14, 2012, a gunman shot and killed 20 children and six staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The horrific murders shocked the nation. Three months later, in March 2013, about 30 leading experts on gun violence prevention, mental health and law enforcement gathered at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore to determine what could be done, through policymaking, to save lives.

Importantly, we were then — and remain — acutely aware of the many lives that are lost to gun violence in this country that don’t make the headlines like mass shooting events. Every day,  people die by gun suicide and as a result of gun homicides that occur on our streets and in our homes; these deaths need to drive prevention efforts.

Focusing on risk factors that are evidence-based results in effective recommendations.

At the time of our initial meeting, evidence wasn’t informing the national conversation about gun violence prevention. Many members of the media and policymakers had focused their attention on policies designed to keep guns out of the hands of people with a mental illness. These solutions rested on the assumption that the problem of gun violence is fundamentally related to mental illness, and that keeping guns away from people with a mental illness would therefore reduce it.

That premise was false.

Our group reviewed the literature and found that evidence supports restricting firearm access on the basis of certain dangerous behaviors.

Based on the available evidence, we recommended three policy approaches most likely to reduce gun violence.1 Among the three: States should enact gun violence restraining order policies, also known as extreme risk protection order, or ERPO, laws.2 They establish a process that allows law enforcement and, depending on the state, different combinations of family members, health care providers, and school administrators to ask a court to temporarily prevent a person who is behaving dangerously and at risk of self-harm or harming others from buying or possessing firearms.

Growing momentum at the state level

Since that March 2013 meeting, we’ve promoted the use of ERPO to prevent gun violence in a number of ways. We released a report for states, held educational forums across the nation, written reports tailored to states’ existing policies, and responded to questions and requests for technical assistance.

The response has exceeded our expectations.

Only two states had enacted risk warrant laws that are similar to ERPO prior to 2013. Today, 13 additional states and the District of Columbia have ERPO policies in place, and more than half of states have introduced ERPO bills.

This rising tide is a testament to the very real potential for moving evidence-based gun violence prevention policy forward at the state level.

Innovative implementation approaches

Gun violence prevention advocates across the nation have worked hard to pass ERPO laws in their states and counties. They have proved equally resourceful in their efforts to boost implementation and enforcement — essential steps to saving lives.

From King County, Washington, and San Diego County, California, out west, to the state of Maryland and Pinellas County, Florida, in the east, state and local jurisdictions are leading the way with model implementation practices. These innovative approaches include employing local ERPO implementation experts to guide ERPO petitioners in preparing for court, developing electronic records management systems that help manage ERPO cases, and supporting law enforcement in the dispossession process once an order is secured.

The road ahead

As we work with ERPO implementers throughout the country, we see a need to ensure successful models for doing this work are in the hands of more implementers, support efforts to use ERPO effectively, identify promising strategies and bring new implementers into the fold. We also recognize a need to evaluate the effectiveness of ERPO implementation efforts. We are working to address that need.

That’s why, six years after that initial meeting in Baltimore, we’re excited to be back at the Bloomberg School announcing a new online resource for implementers, including law enforcement officers and clinicians. ERPO is one important and urgently needed policy in the gun violence prevention toolkit. ERPO has the potential to save lives, and we are committed to supporting ongoing efforts to implement this policy around the country.

Please check the online ERPO resource often for updates on legislative progress, new resources to support implementation and the latest in research on ERPO laws.

  1. McGinty EE, Frattaroli S, Appelbaum PS, Bonnie RJ, Grilley A, Horwitz J, Swanson J, Webster DW. Using research evidence to reframe the policy debate around mental illness and guns: Process and recommendations. American Journal of Public Health, 2014;104(11):e22-6.
  2. Frattaroli S, McGinty EE, Barnhorst A, Greenberg S. Gun violence restraining orders: Alternative or adjunct to mental health-based restrictions on firearms? Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 2015;33(2-3):290-307