By Rep. Todd Stephens
Rep. Jennifer O’Mara, and Adam Garber
Fear and confusion have invaded the American psyche over the last three months as a historic disease has attacked our population. When empty store shelves greeted many shoppers, we wondered if there would be enough food. As the death toll rose above 100,000, we worried who may be next. As the economy shuddered, businesses shuttered, and jobs disappeared, many pinched pennies to afford the next meal or stay in their home.
The maelstrom of emotions from these events has led millions--often motivated by a desire to protect themselves and their loved ones--to purchase their first firearm. While the effectiveness of such efforts is dubious, new research reveals one simple fact: The danger to first-time firearm owners is substantial and will last well past the pandemic.
In a new study released in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers examined the suicides by first-time handgun owners and non-owners during a 12-year period. Men who bought firearms were eight times more likely to die by suicide; women 35 times more likely.
Suicide is often an impulsive decision that can be stopped if the attempt is delayed. According to the study, the increased suicide risk by gun owners spiked to 100-times higher than non-owners in the month after a gun was purchased. And then the trend continued over time, with the majority of deaths by suicide from a gun occurring during the first 12 years after the first month after purchase.
It is likely that in dark moments of someone’s life, the immediate access to a gun, even years after a purchase, leads to an elevated risk. Afterall, the tool used to attempt suicide matters: Using a gun is vastly more likely to result in a completed suicide.
Extreme Risk Protection Orders
(ERPOs) are designed to address this problem. Family members, friends, and co-workers may notice someone is depressed or in crisis. They often know whether that person owns a gun. This legal tool allows family or law enforcement to ask a judge to temporarily disarm someone who may harm themselves or others. Soon afterward, a judge assesses whether the firearm should remain under lock and key in some other location until the person gets the help they need to remain safe.
In 17 states, these orders help prevent suicides and other forms of gun violence. One study found that suicides were averted in one out of every 10 orders
. Unfortunately, ERPOs are not an option for Pennsylvanians.
We’re working to change that. In 2019, Rep. Stephens introduced the bipartisan House Bill 1075
to establish ERPOs, which was co-sponsored by Rep. O’Mara, who lost her father to suicide. Mr. Garber has led the advocacy efforts for this legislation, which remains in the House Judiciary Committee where it is awaiting a vote.
It will take us years to recover from the impact of COVID-19, but we can begin addressing a likely surge of gun suicides from first-time gun buyers right now. It starts with making the establishment of ERPOs a top priority for our General Assembly before the year ends.
Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery) and Rep. Jennifer O’Mara (D-Delaware) are state representatives leading the legislative effort on ERPOs in PA.
Adam Garber is the executive director of CeaseFire Pennsylvania, the state’s leading gun violence prevention advocacy organization.
Representative Todd Stephens
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: David Foster