A bill giving people at risk of suicide the option to voluntarily give up their right to keep a firearm passed the Senate Law and Justice Committee unanimously. The next step for the bill is the Rules Committee before it gets a hearing in the House of Representatives.
Senate Bill 5553, sponsored by Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, was introduced and heard last year. Beginning this session, Pedersen is chair of the Law and Justice Committee.
“While we know not any one policy will solve all gun violence or prevent all gun suicides, giving people the option to voluntarily flag that they may be in crisis and they don’t want to have access to firearms during that crisis, is an important step they can take,” said Rebecca Johnson of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility at the bill’s hearing last year.
She acknowledged that people already have a legal right to turn over any firearm they already own to a trusted friend or family member. This bill would give people with suicidal thoughts another safety tool.
Jennifer Stuber, who lost her husband to suicide, is the director of Forefront, an organization at the University of Washington that focuses on suicide prevention policy, education and research. Stuber cited the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention data showing 1,129 suicide deaths in Washington state in 2015. Noting that about half of those deaths involved a firearm, Stuber said this bill was drafted on common ground and takes an important step toward suicide prevention while maintaining individual autonomy.
Keely Hopkins, a state liaison for the National Rifle Association, expressed concerns about individual autonomy. She said a person who is not a risk to themselves or others could be coerced into waiving their firearm rights. She also worries that health care providers may require the waiver as a term of service or employers might require the waiver as a term of employment.
The bill passed out of committee with an amendment that prohibits employers or health care providers from using the waiver as a term of employment or service. The waivers are also exempt from the Public Records Act and they must be destroyed after someone retains their firearm rights.
Under the bill, someone can retain their firearm rights after a period of seven days, and the Washington State Patrol has to process the waiver and retain that person’s rights within another seven days.
Hopkins requested a shorter time period in which someone can retain their rights.
“Fourteen days could be an eternity for somebody who needs a firearm for self-protection,” she said.
The Law and Justice Committee heard an amendment that would change the period in which the person’s firearm rights are rescinded from seven days to 48 hours. However, this amendment was not adopted, because committee members believe that a mental health crisis can last for more than 48 hours and seven days is not a significant infringement on someone’s second amendment rights.
This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation. The WNPA Olympia News Bureau is overseen by Sandy Stokes.