House committee narrows scope of gun violence protective order bill amid concerns of abuse

The dwindling gun section at Fred Meyer after the retailer announced it would no longer sell guns or ammo to buyers under 21 on March 1, 2018. It later announced that it would cease selling firearms altogether.

After weeks of testimony and committee work, the House Judiciary Committee released an updated version of House Bill 75 that narrows the scope of the proposed law to allow judges to order the temporary removal of firearms from a person at risk of harming themselves or others.

The rewritten version of House Bill 75 would allow only law enforcement officers to petition a judge for a gun violence protective order against a “dangerous person.” The previous version of the bill would have also allowed immediate family members to seek a gun violence protective order, but was that met with worry about potential abuse.

The new bill also raises the threshold of evidence for the orders, and defines what a “dangerous person” is for the intent of the bill. A “dangerous person” would be someone who has either made threats of immediate violence; or is at risk of violence in the future and has a mental illness that they’ve been documented to not be properly treating (the bill specifically says mental illness alone isn’t cause); or is at risk of violence in the future and has a documented history of violent behavior.

Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, described the sort of behavior that would be targeted by the bill as someone making a Facebook post about wanting to become a professional school shooter but not naming a school or time. He said without an identifiable victim law enforcement would have a tough time acting under current law.

“I feel fairly confident there’s not a single person at this table that when people make statements or post online that they intend to do something, but have left one blank in the sentence–and that’s who the victim is and when–that we would want to stand by and wait for victims to stack up before we do anything,” he said.

He added that he’s more comfortable with the bill because it cuts down on potentials of abuse of the system and it also sets clear protections for gun owners. The orders also require that law enforcement show that less-restrictive intervention was attempted. Gun owners would be able to retrieve their firearms once the protective order has expired.

Multiple high school students testified in favor of the bill, with a few speaking specifically about the bill’s importance for combating suicide. One student said that he would have likely committed suicide recently if he had easy access to a firearm.

There were still skeptics of the bill, including Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, who at one point quizzed a high school testifier if she could name all the school shootings in Alaska (the student named the 1997 Bethel High School Shooting) and whether or not a teacher had coached her testimony.

“I want to state guns do nothing alone,” Reinbold later said. “They do not harm anybody. There’s probably hundreds of thousands in Alaska. They do nothing alone. Just like a car does nothing alone, just like pills do nothing alone, just like knives do nothing alone. It is a heart, mind, soul, physical, mental breakdown that causes it.”

Reinbold also said she was concerned the bill would be creating “gun-free” zones because it could remove the guns from a household (it only removes the guns owned by the person affected by the order) making it a soft target for a robbery.

Despite her concerns, Reinbold said she saw potential in the bill, but wanted to hear from law enforcement officers before taking action because she was concerned the protective orders could be putting officers in harm’s way.

Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, was also similarly skeptical about the legislation. She said she wanted to see crime statistics from states that had instituted similar gun violence protective orders (Indiana, Connecticut and California) to see whether or not they had any actual impact on crime or suicide rates.

Rep. Geran Tarr, the sponsor of the bill, cited a study on Indiana that estimated for every 10 to 20 risk orders that were issued, one suicide was avoided. LeDoux dismissed the study as an estimate and said she wanted to see crime statistics on the issue.

The House Judiciary Committee will hear the bill again on Wednesday night. Judiciary chair Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, set a 4 p.m. Wednesday deadline for amendments.

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