‘We won’t stop until the job is done’: Activists, lawmakers call for passage of red flag law

September 17, 2019 12:23 pm

Lauren Johnson, a U.S. Air Force reservist from Philadelphia, speaks during a state Capitol rally on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019 where she called on lawmakers to pass a Red Flag law bill (Capital-Star photo).

On the surface, Melissa Shusterman said, her brother-in-law had it all.

He was successful in business. He was beloved in his community. His energy was boundless. But it still masked a deeper pain. A few years ago, she said, he took his own life, becoming one of the roughly 2,000 Pennsylvanians who die by suicide each year.

“I don’t want any more families to miss their loved ones,” Shusterman, a Democratic member of the state House from Chester County, said Tuesday.

She was joined by activists and fellow lawmakers who called for passage of a “red flag” law, which would allow family and police to petition judges to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person at risk of harming himself or others.

All told, 17 states and Washington, D.C. now allow these extreme risk protection orders, as they’re technically known. Activists and legislators who gathered in the Capitol rotunda Tuesday, in the midst of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month nationwide, said they’re an effective tool that saves lives.

Firearms are the weapon of choice in about half the suicides that take place in Pennsylvania every year. And no area of the state is immune, said Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, who is sponsoring the House’s version of the bill.

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A companion bill, sponsored by Sen. Tom Killion, R-Delaware, is pending in the state Senate. Both proposals have the support of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who has called on the majority-GOP General Assembly to pass them and send them to his desk.

“These deaths are preventable,” Stephens, a former prosecutor, said. Speaking to reporters after the rally, Stephens pointed to studies in Indiana and Connecticut that he says underline the effectiveness of red flag laws in preventing firearms-related deaths.

“We have strong data that ERPOs save lives,” Stephens said, adding that he’s been traveling the state and using hard data to build support for his proposal.

The data is “compelling, and it shows [ERPOs] will save lives in Pennsylvania,” he said.

Several speakers at Tuesday’s rally said gun suicides disproportionately affect veterans, who have access to and know how to use firearms.

Lauren Johnson, an Air Force reservist and member of Action Tank, an advocacy group for servicemembers and veterans, said the Pennsylvania legislation presents “the opportunity to save lives.”

“Access to firearms in an acute situation can mean the difference between life and death,” Johnson, of Philadelphia, said.

Rep. Joe Webster, a Montgomery County Democrat and veteran, recalled being in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. The nation mobilized after that tragic day, he said, by taking such steps as beefing up security at government buildings and airports.

Despite a plague of suicides affecting veterans who were deployed to serve in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Webster said policymakers have not mobilized in the same way to prevent the firearms-related suicides that claimed those former servicepeople’s lives.

“There’s a majority who wants to get this done,” Webster said. “I think we’re ready to do this.”

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.