Headstones are shown in an Oklahoma City cemetery. (Whitney Bryen)

The victims number in the hundreds across Oklahoma every year, each one a casualty of the state’s epidemic of suicide by firearms.

The youngest last year was a 12-year-old Spiro boy.  The oldest was a 97-year-old Bartlesville man.  Both died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, state data show. The average age of the 433 Oklahomans who used a firearm to commit suicide in 2017: 46.5 years.

For Oklahoma, a state that already has a stubbornly high suicide rate, firearms are used to take one’s own life more than they’ve ever been used in mass shootings. The figures raise questions about the effectiveness of suicide prevention efforts and whether laws should be changed to give police more leeway to confiscate firearms from people who are at risk of harming themselves or others.

Nearly 58 percent of the state’s 750 suicides last year involved firearms. The number of suicides could grow as the Office of the State Medical Examiner continues to process cases.

Although seriously mentally ill Oklahomans can’t buy guns, the state has no law to allow officers to take guns away from them or those who are in psychological distress, unless police see direct evidence someone is dangerous, like pointing a gun at their head.

So-called “red flag” laws allow police officers to legally confiscate guns with a warrant and without a crime occurring if they receive reports from concerned family members or others about an individual posing a risk. States with these laws have court hearings to determine if confiscations will be temporary or indefinite.

Connecticut passed the first red flag law in 1999. Since then, five other states have passed similar laws: Florida, Indiana, Washington, Oregon and California. The Legislature has never introduced a red flag law in Oklahoma.

Research shows that red flag laws prevent suicides. A study of the Connecticut law’s impact found that it prevented between 38 and 76 suicides from 1999 to 2013. That study, conducted by researchers from Yale and Duke universities and the University of Connecticut, focused on 762 gun removals in Connecticut and estimated that suicide was prevented in every 10 to 20 firearm seizures.

2016 Suicide Death Rate
  1. Montana: 25.9
  2. Alaska: 25.8
  3. Wyoming: 25.2
  4. New Mexico: 22.5
  5. Utah: 21.8
  6. Idaho: 21.4
  7. Nevada: 21.4
  8. Oklahoma: 21.0
  9. Colorado: 20.5
  10. South Dakota: 20.2

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In Connecticut, the law is used in a variety of situations, including with a man who threatened to kill himself and owned 81 guns.

Though Oklahoma law enforcement officers don’t have the option of proactively confiscating firearms, there are steps gun owners and their loved ones can take, said Michael Brose, chief empowerment officer of the Oklahoma Mental Health Association.

When people are in a “distressed state,” regardless of the reason, they should place firearms in a secure location, such as a gun safe for which they don’t have the combination, Brose said, adding that periods of high distress can fade after a short period of time.

Those steps can help prevent suicides, an epidemic that doesn’t get the same attention as mass shootings, he said.

“We’re not getting near enough attention and publicity to how many people are killing themselves every day, and their method of choice is a firearm,” he said.

An Oklahoma gun-control advocate said changes to state laws are needed to empower law enforcement more to address issues of firearm possession.

“Passing a state law prohibiting people with dangerous mental illnesses from having guns would empower local law enforcement to keep guns away from these people when they interact with them in the community,” Alyson King, a volunteer with the Oklahoma chapter of Moms Demand Action, said in a statement.

For police officers to confiscate someone’s guns, there has to be evidence — usually something an officer observes — that someone poses a danger to themselves or others.  Officers can ask someone to voluntarily turn over their firearms until they get treatment if family members report concerns. In those cases, police book the weapons for safekeeping.  Like other seized property, the firearms are subject to a forfeiture hearing if they are unclaimed.

Sgt. Shane Tuell, a public information officer for Tulsa Police Department, said it’s key for officers to have evidence that stands up legally, not just suspicions.

“Everyone has rights and it’s not the responsibility of a police department or law enforcement agency to say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to take your rights away from you,’ without having a proper way of doing that,” he said.

What Oklahoma Does

Oklahoma’s efforts in recent years have focused on firearm purchasing, as opposed to possession. In the last three years, the state has added 5,000 mental-health records to the federal database used for background checks for firearm purchases. The checks were spurred by a 2015 state law.

Under state law, a court can determine a person is mentally incompetent or order the person to be involuntarily committed due to a mental illness or condition. Federal law forbids a person in those situations from having a firearm, but states aren’t required to report the information to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Prior to the law’s enactment, a felony conviction was required to be placed on the list of people who can’t buy guns. Now, court clerks must report identities of people to the NICS database and the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation, which issues concealed-carry permits.

Licensed firearms dealers use that database to conduct background checks during sales. The database contains other information, such as criminal records from the court system, that can disqualify someone person from purchasing a firearm. Transactions between individuals, including at gun shows, aren’t checked or reported.

That court process that prevents firearm purchases can happen in the absence of criminal proceedings and is focused solely on the person’s mental health and safety. The hearings can include civil commitments that put a person in a facility for treatment.

The law also recognizes that a person’s mental health can improve. However, even though individuals may petition the court to restore their ability to purchase firearms, few have done so. It has happened just six times, four in 2015 and two in 2016. It’s unclear why the number is so low, but it could indicate the law is working as intended. However, the court hearings are closed, making it impossible to determine the merits of individual cases.

Hearings take into account evidence such as psychological and psychiatric history and records, the circumstances that led to the designation, character witnesses and what’s changed for the better in the person’s mental health.

If the court agrees, the clerk must notify the federal database, OSBI and the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Jeffrey Dismukes, a spokesman for the mental health agency, noted that cases reportable to the federal database include civil commitments, those found not competent to stand trial and people found not guilty by reason of insanity.

“The data is not limited to any specific illness or event,” he said in an email.

Reach reporter Ben Botkin at bbotkin@oklahomawatch.org or (702) 418-6089.

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