Parts of the sturdy wall that's long separated Ohio's right and left on issues of gun control crumbled last week after a mass shooting killed nine people in Dayton, unleashing widespread public anguish and outrage.

Republican Gov. Mike DeWine quickly stepped into the breach, proposing a package of reforms aimed at reducing gun violence.

At the top of his list are "safety protection orders," a concept broadly referred to as "red-flag laws," measures now used by 17 states to temporarily remove firearms from those deemed an immediate threat to themselves or others.

Whether a red-flag law can make it through Ohio’s Republican-dominated legislature remains unclear. A similar package proposed by former Ohio Gov. John Kasich failed last year.

Yet some opponents of Kasich's efforts — including the gun rights advocacy group Buckeye Firearms Association — are withholding judgment on DeWine's efforts until they see details about how it balances government power against individual rights.

“We believe [DeWine] is trying to avoid the problems past laws have presented,” Dean Rieck, the group's executive director, said in a long question-and-answer session about DeWine’s proposal posted on the Buckeye Firearms website.

“However, we will need to actually see a bill and read the details before we can know exactly what is being proposed,” he wrote. “If we think due process is lacking, we will oppose this part of the initiative.”

A spokesman for DeWine said Thursday that it will likely be a few weeks before full details of the proposed law are worked out.

But this article offers a glimpse into what DeWine is considering, how a new red-flag law might work with long-standing mental health laws and existing efforts to help the mentally ill, including crisis teams that began in Akron nearly 20 years ago and have since spread to each of Ohio's 88 counties.

 

Indiana's example

The biggest sticking point to any proposed red-flag law in Ohio appears to be whether a court hearing happens before or after someone’s guns are confiscated.

In neighboring Indiana — which in 2005 passed the nation's second state red-flag law — a court hearing occurs afterward.

Law enforcement may seize someone’s firearms in the Hoosier state without a court order if officers believe the person poses an immediate danger to himself or others.

After the guns are confiscated, law enforcement must submit a written statement to a court justifying the action.

The person who lost the guns has a chance to make his case in court, and a judge has 14 days to either uphold the seizure or return the weapons to the owner.

About 1 out of every 3 adults in Indiana owns a gun, The Indianapolis Star has reported, and the red-flag law there has stirred little controversy.

The Indiana law in recent months has also served as a model for red-flag laws in other states after a mass shooting at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School left 17 dead and another 17 injured in 2018.

But in Ohio, some gun advocates believe the Indiana law skirts due process with warrantless gun seizures.

They want — and DeWine is proposing — a court hearing to occur before guns are taken.

DeWine's proposed law would allow friends, family or police to seek a safety protection order from a judge. The law would mandate a hearing — with the gun owner present — happen within three days of the request to determine if guns should be temporarily confiscated.

If a judge determines there is probable cause and the guns are seized, other hearings could follow to extend the seizure order and evaluate the mental health of the gun owner.

Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof on Friday told The Columbus Dispatch that the process DeWine has described — court hearing before confiscation — may resolve his chamber's prior concerns over an Ohio red-flag law.

"It's not dead on arrival,” Obhof, of Medina County, told the newspaper. “I think we've had substantial and very positive discussions about its merits to this point.”

 

Pink-slip pathway

What happens if the red-flag law passes and an Ohio mom suspects her son may go on a shooting rampage?

If she requests a safety protection order for police to seize her son’s guns, it could take three days for a judge to give police the go-ahead.

During that time, Ohio’s justice system could turn to its much older pink-slip laws aimed at helping the mentally ill, the governor’s office said.

The laws, working together, could put both time and distance between a potential shooter and his guns.

Ohio’s pink-slip laws got the nickname because the forms needed to admit someone for a psychiatric evaluation in Ohio were once pink, said Dr. Doug Smith, a psychiatrist and medical director of the Summit County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services board.

The forms are now white, he said, but the nickname stuck.

In Ohio, health officials or law enforcement who believe someone is mentally ill and presents a looming threat to himself or others can pink slip that person to psychiatric emergency services, where they can be held for up to 24 hours.

During that time, psychiatric staff evaluate the person and determine if he can be released. Sometimes a person drunk or high can appear mentally ill or dangerous, Smith said, but once they sober up, it’s clear there is no risk. Others, however, need to be hospitalized — either voluntarily or not.

When people are involuntarily admitted for psychiatric care, a new clock starts ticking under Ohio law, Smith said. Hospitals then have three business days to do their own evaluation and either release or admit the person for further treatment, most often for just a couple of days.

Pink-slip law wasn’t aimed at preventing mass shootings, but it is an existing tool that could help.

“There’s not doubt if someone goes around wanting to shoot up people, there's something not right,” Smith said. The person may not have been diagnosed with a mental illness, he said, but that doesn’t mean there’s not something wrong.

The whole pink-slip process could eat up enough time for DeWine’s red-flag law — with its mandatory court hearing within three days of request — to work its way through the courts before the gun owner is released from psychiatric care.

Ohioans, however, need to report potential danger for any of this to work.

The governor's office said it plans to roll out a public awareness campaign similar to what happened nationwide after the 9/11 terrorist attacks: If you see something, say something.

People need to think of mental illness like physical illness and utilize the resources Ohio already has to help, Smith said.

“If you see Bob hacking and coughing around the office, you’re going to ask him if he’s OK, if he’s seen a doctor,” Smith said.

The same should apply “if people see Bob acting strangely for several days,” Smith said. “People need to check on his mental health. Is everything OK?”

For help, he said, co-workers, families or friends worried about someone’s mental health can call 911 in any of Ohio’s 88 counties and ask for a CIT, or Crisis Intervention Team, whose members have been specially trained to assess and help the mentally ill.

The program started in Akron almost 20 years ago after Summit County paid for an Akron police officer to receive training in Tennessee.

When that officer returned, he began training others in Akron and since then, every Ohio county has set up teams, many of which are on call 24/7.

Besides knowing how to de-escalate a volatile situation involving the mentally ill, the teams are also trained to help friends and families find solutions, whether that is temporary hospitalization or outpatient help in the community.

 

State under microscope

Dr. Garen Wintemute — an emergency room physician who studies gun violence at the University of California-Davis — watched Ohio from afar last week as it began debating safety protection orders to seize guns.

“This is quite the package for a Republican governor to propose,” Wintemute said after reviewing DeWine’s plan, which also includes background checks and more money for mental health and other services.

There’s little evidence to show how red-flag laws may impact mass shootings because it’s impossible to measure something that didn’t happen.

But studies have shown a dip in suicides after states implement safety protection orders like Ohio is considering. “It’s important to remember most gun deaths are suicides,” he said.

And suicides are on the rise in the United States. In Ohio, suicides increased by 24% between 2008 and 2017, according to a study released early this year by the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health.

There were 15,243 suicides in Ohio during that time, the study showed. Of those, 7,779 involved a gun.

Meanwhile, as Ohio debates its gun seizure law, Republicans on the national level are also considering a federal law that would temporarily take guns from those who pose a risk to themselves or others.

Wintemute said it’s the first time in decades he’s been optimistic about America taking action to curb gun violence.

DeWine’s proposal doesn’t include everything he’d propose, Wintemute said, but the temporary gun seizures and increased background checks DeWine is proposing are at the top of his list.

Neither will prevent all suicides, homicides or most mass shootings.

“But,” Wintemute said, “don't make the perfect be the enemy of the good."

 

Amanda Garrett can be reached at agarrett@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @agarrettabj.