States don’t define legal liability for returning firearms to a suicidal person, study shows

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The United States has no clear laws regarding liability when someone returns a firearm that was temporarily surrendered to reduce suicide risk, according to a new University of Washington study co-authored by a doctoral student at the UW School of Public Health. The study was led by researchers at Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center (HIPRC) at UW Medicine.

This study was published online March 19 in the American Journal of Public Health.

“Temporary transfer laws are an increasingly prevalent strategy to limit the availability of firearms to people at risk for suicide,” said lead author Molly Gibbons, a researcher in the Firearm Injury & Policy Research Program at HIPRC. Second author Mary Fan is a professor at the UW School of Law and a doctoral student in the Department of Epidemiology.

While the number of suicides in the U.S. continues to grow as a major public health concern, the risk of completed suicide is especially high for people in firearm-owning households. Temporary transfers of firearms are intended to prevent suicides and bodily harm, and they can be used to reduce the availability and immediate access to lethal means for people in crisis.

The problem with many of these temporary transfer laws is that they do not define what, if any, liability attaches to the person transferring back firearms after the at-risk individual’s crisis is over.

Currently, 14 states create background check exceptions to allow temporary transfers of firearms from an owner to family, friends, retailers or law enforcement. Twenty states and the District of Columbia require background checks for transfers between private parties. Twelve states and the District of Columbia require background checks at the time of transfer, and eight other states require transferees to have a permit.

However, no states prescribe procedures for returning those firearms. The lack of clarity surrounding who’s liable creates a tremendous obstacle for those who want to help suicidal individuals.

“This commentary highlights a barrier to the effective operation of temporary firearm transfer laws aimed at reducing the risk of suicide—the widespread gaps regarding the liability for returning firearms to persons who voluntarily surrender them,” Gibbons said.

In Washington state, temporary transfer laws require a temporary storage provider to return firearms once the suicidal crisis passes. Researchers in this study hope that legislatures address uncertainties about the procedures to return temporarily surrendered firearms and the potential liability faced by people or entities who temporarily store firearms and then return them.

Gibbons suggests that clarifying the procedure and liability for returning temporarily surrendered firearms can help address a barrier to the effective operation of this legal strategy for saving lives.

Co-authors of this study include Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, associate professor of epidemiology and Bartley Dobb Professor for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the UW School of Public Health and adjunct associate professor of pediatrics at the UW School of Medicine, and Fred Rivara, a professor of pediatrics at the UW School of Medicine and adjunct professor of epidemiology at the UW School of Public Health. Both are part of HIPRC’s Firearm Injury & Policy Research Program, which funded this study.