Oregon should do more to educate the public about a civil court tool to prevent gun violence, an Oregon Secretary of State report found. (Photo by Aristide Economopoulos/NJ Monitor via Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Oregon officials can do more to increase public awareness about an obscure civil court tool that can prevent gun violence and suicides, according to an Oregon Secretary of State report released Wednesday.

The tool is based upon Oregon’s “red flag” law, which allows family members or law enforcement to petition the court for someone to turn in their firearms if they are a risk to themselves or others. That court procedure – called an extreme risk protection order – does not require criminal charges. 

The court order can save lives. Oregon’s rate of firearm-related suicides is 42% higher than the national rate, the report said. That’s a rate of 10 Oregonians committing suicide for every 100,000 residents. About 455 Oregonians died of suicide with a firearm in 2020, according to Oregon Health Authority data. That same year, another 110 Oregonians died of firearm-related homicides. 

But state auditors found barriers can prevent or discourage Oregonians from filing the court petitions to prevent their family member’s suicide. Those barriers include a simple lack of awareness or an unfamiliarity with how to navigate the court system and fill out the required paperwork. 

“Gun violence is a serious and growing risk not only in Oregon, but nationwide,” Audits Director Kip Memmott said in a statement. “We have a tool and a process in our laws to protect people in those situations where we know the risk is heightened. But if Oregonians don’t know it’s available — or can’t use it — that’s a problem we need to fix.”

The 33-page advisory report is not an audit because no single agency is responsible for administering the state’s red flag law, which Oregon lawmakers passed in 2017. But state auditors researched and compiled it in a similar fashion.

Oregon is one of 21 states – and the District of Columbia – that have similar laws in place. In other states, the court tool has prevented suicides and been used in cases where an individual threatens a mass shooting.

But auditors found the petitions are not widely filed compared to four other types of civil protective orders Oregonians can seek to prevent harm from others. Other types of protective orders can protect victims from stalking, domestic abuse and sexual assault and vulnerable people who are elderly or disabled.

In all, about 64,000 protective orders of all kinds were requested in court between 2018 and 2021. But there were just 485 firearms-related petitions filed in court – less than 1% of the entire group, the report said.

With that small number, auditors could not determine whether the petitions were working as intended because the state is not collecting enough data. Also, no entity is doing a review or evaluation to determine whether  the law is reducing gun violence in Oregon, the report found.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report.