As the daily news cycle continues to remind us, those in danger of harming themselves or others often show clear advance warning signs. Extreme Risk laws empower community members to act on those signs. They authorize law enforcement, and sometimes family or other key community members, to work with the courts to temporarily remove a person’s guns during moments of crisis. If the court determines that the risk is high enough, it issues an order, often called an Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO), temporarily prohibiting the person from purchasing or possessing guns, thus giving them the time they need to seek help.
Extreme Risk laws exist at the state level. So far, 21 states and the District of Columbia have Extreme Risk laws on the books—meaning that just over half the US population lives in a state with this policy.
The research is clear: these laws save lives. In California, the state that enacted the first comprehensive Extreme Risk statute, researchers followed nearly two dozen cases where the law was used to prevent a mass shooting and in every case, neither that mass shooting nor any other homicides or suicides involving the at-risk individual occurred. In Indiana, researchers estimated that one suicide was averted for approximately every 10 temporary gun removals carried out under the state’s Extreme Risk law, while another study in Connecticut found that increased enforcement of the state’s Extreme Risk law was associated with a 14 percent drop in gun suicide rates.
This is an historic moment for Extreme Risk laws. With the recent passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the federal government has for the first time made much-needed funding available for these laws to be put into practice. Specifically, this act has allocated—as part of a larger gun safety package—$750 million to support state crisis intervention services such as Extreme Risk laws.
This new funding from the federal government has enormous potential to help prevent gun violence—but only if states leverage it. This guide presents the state of play in the 21 states with Extreme Risk laws and aims to lift up examples of effective implementation of these laws.
How Are States Using Extreme Risk Laws?
States are increasingly looking to Extreme Risk laws as a helpful tool for preventing potential violence; yet, when it comes to the actual uptake and usage of these laws, there is immense state-to-state variation. For instance, in 2021 the number of ERPOs filed in Maryland per 100,000 people was twice that of Connecticut and eight times that of Virginia. Some states used this proactive, lifesaving tool multiple times per day in 2021 (California had 1,397 petitions filed; Florida had 2,586; Maryland had 754). Other states (see table below) had fewer than one petition filed per month.
Furthermore, within states, there is significant variation in uptake, with some counties filing relatively high numbers of ERPOs, and others filing few or none at all. This is evident in states with relatively low overall rates of ERPO usage like New Mexico, where only 15 percent of counties report ever having filed an ERPO. However, it is also true in states with relatively high overall rates of ERPO usage. In Washington state, just three counties were responsible for over 70 percent of the total ERPOs filed in the state in 2021, despite accounting for only 41 percent of the population.
Number of Extreme Risk Petitions Filed by State and Year1Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “Extreme Risk Laws Save Lives,” 2022.
|State||Year law took effect||Number of petitions filed in 2021||Percent of counties with at least one Extreme Risk petition filed from 2018 through 2021|
|District of Columbia2Petition counts under 20 have been suppressed, per the policy of the DC Courts.||2019||<20||—|
|Indiana3Data for 2021 is likely an undercount as it does not include the total number of civil petitions filed. Data for civil cases is limited to total petitions granted by the court.||2005||482||48%|
|New Mexico4Morgan Lee, “New Mexico Red-Flag Gun Law Seldom Used to Withdraw Firearms,” Associated Press, February 9, 2021, https://bit.ly/2QFdO78.||2020||3||15%|
|Washington5Data is limited to Superior Court filings and does not include orders reported in lower courts at this time.||2016||187||85%|
While there’s work to be done to ensure this tool is used, one thing is clear: Extreme Risk law champions are making a difference in their communities.
King County, Washington
Kimberly Wyatt, Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for King County, Washington, has been outspoken about the need for thoughtful implementation of Extreme Risk laws. She emphasizes that these laws do not implement themselves. Her partners in law enforcement and the courts have worked to make the process more transparent to the public, creating step-by-step brochures that guide the public through all the laws and processes, establishing and publicizing a dedicated ERPO email contact for immediate connections to advocates and staff, and providing comprehensive webpages of commonly asked questions about ERPOs.
Wyatt has stressed the importance of bringing together all the relevant partners—including the county prosecutor’s office, city attorney, police department, sheriffs, clerk’s offices, and judges—to develop a uniform framework so that everyone is working off the same roadmap. Wyatt has emphasized the critical need for a clear process in place for when an emergency occurs.1Kimberly Wyatt video interview on Bloomberg American Health Initiative; live streamed convening on ERPO.
Her leadership on this topic has paid off across the state: from 2018 to 2021, the number of ERPO petitions filed in Washington increased by over 40 percent.
San Diego, California
A couple of states away is another powerful advocate of Extreme Risk laws—San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliot. Her unit has trained over 500 law enforcement agencies throughout the state, including in San Francisco and Sacramento, in how to recognize risky behavior and take steps to request an ERPO. They have expanded training to non-government agencies, schools, and medical and mental health professionals across the state, since under California’s law, a wider group of professionals can petition the court for temporary firearms removal, including employers and teachers. Experts working with Attorney Elliot urge states to consider mass education efforts, noting that gun-related matters are easily politicized and that it’s important for people to see these laws through the lens of public safety.
Attorney Elliot’s work has helped increase usage of Extreme Risk laws across the state: from 2018 to 2021, the number of ERPO petitions filed in California increased by more than 320 percent.
ERPO Funding Can Make a Difference
Extreme Risk laws are civil processes that have helped defuse crises, keep guns out of dangerous situations, and prevent countless acts of gun suicide and would-be mass shootings. In other words, these laws have saved lives, but only when members of a community know they exist and are equipped to use them. With thoughtful implementation, the funding from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act can go a long way towards creating a safer, more secure America.