Column: Here’s how we can reduce gun violence in Michigan

May 5, 2022 10:55 am

Oxford High School, Dec. 3, 2021 | Allison R. Donahue

A question has lurked in the back of the American mind for quite a few years now: “When will the next mass shooting be and will I be in the wrong place at the wrong time?”

What has become a reality for many of us in the United States is, quite frankly, not the case in other countries with similar populations. 

In Michigan, we had the Oxford High School shooting last year, when a 15-year-old student accessed a gun and allegedly killed four other children and injured seven people, including a teacher. It’s a terrifying and confusing state of affairs, but experts say tragedies like the one in Oxford are preventable when states have Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) laws on the books.

ERPO laws are policies that empower family members and law enforcement, among others, to work with courts to temporarily remove firearms from those who are determined to pose a danger to themselves or others. 

ERPOs came about after a 2014 mass shooting near the University of California. The parents of the shooter had shared their concerns about their son being at risk of harming others. The therapist contacted law enforcement, but there was no legal authority to intervene — and thus, no one could not step in to take action before this tragedy occurred. Just four months after the Santa Barbara shooting, California lawmakers passed the Gun Violence Restraining Order, the country’s first ERPO law.

The laws work differently in every state. But generally, the petition process entails completing an ERPO petition, which triggers a temporary ERPO hearing. During this hearing, the petitioner must explain why they believe the respondent is at risk of harming themself or others. If a temporary ERPO is issued, law enforcement will serve the ERPO and the respondent will be instructed on how to surrender guns and ammunition. A more long-term, or “final” ERPO may be issued in a similar court process. 

Once the ERPO ends, the respondent may request the return of their firearms.

A question has lurked in the back of the American mind for quite a few years now: 'When will the next mass shooting be and will I be in the wrong place at the wrong time?'

You may have also heard of ERPO laws referred to as “red flag” laws. This seemingly innocuous nickname may appear harmless on the surface, but if we are to pass ERPO laws and save lives, I believe we must drop this language from our vocabulary. 

Here’s why. ERPO laws are meant to protect all of us, but using the language “red flag” does more harm than good. Mental health experts have said time and time again that the use of “red flag law” stigmatizes mental health issues and prevents folks from reaching out for help. ERPOs happen in a variety of cases, but all of those cases have something in common: ERPOs are based on observable behaviors, not the presence of a mental health diagnosis. When we are not specific about what an ERPO law will do, we leave citizens and legislators alike open to corrupting and stigmatizing them.

The data on this is clear — people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators of violence. The United States has similar rates of mental illness to other countries but has much higher rates of gun violence. 

Further, mental illness is not even a significant predictor of gun violence. The largest predictor of gun violence is previous violence. When we advocate for ERPO laws, we need the mental health community on our side.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young adults ages 25 to 34, and the 10th leading cause of all death among all Americans. In Michigan, suicide by gun has increased nearly 30% overall from 2015 to 2019, with the majority of those being Michiganders in their 20s. 

Instead of ostracizing those with mental health needs, we need to be listening to their recommendations. Language matters. Recent polling released by Progress Michigan has shown that gun owners and non-gun owners alike prefer the phrasing, “ERPO” to “red flag” with 77% saying they support extreme risk protection orders.

ERPO laws have consistently worked in every state that has them. By working alongside mental health advocates to establish ERPO laws, we may be able to protect our loved ones and thousands of other Michiganders from preventable gun violence tragedies. 

As Michigan legislators consider ways to address gun violence, I implore them to pass Extreme Risk Protection Order laws — without referring to them as “red flags.”


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Myaia Holmes
Myaia Holmes

Myaia “M” Holmes (they/she) was born in the Blackest city in the world, Detroit, and raised in one of the most eclectic, Atlanta. Myaia is the Program Manager with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, working to build the political power of domestic workers and caregivers and the Gun Violence Prevention Campaign Manager with Progress Michigan, reduce violence and build safer communities through policy, education, and advocacy whole addressing the underlying causes of violence.