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

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

By: HIPRC Communications Team Date: March 19th, 2020

A new study explains the widespread gaps in laws regarding temporary transfers of firearms.

Researchers at UW Medicine’s Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center (HIPRC) and Washington State University found the U.S. has no clear laws regarding liability when someone returns a firearm that was temporarily surrendered to reduce suicide risk. This study was published online today in the American Journal of Public Health.

While the number of suicides in the United States 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 can be used to reduce the availability and immediate access to lethal means for people in crisis.

“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 HIPRC’s Firearm Injury & Policy Research Program and a UW School of Law student.

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 permit 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.

Researchers in this study were a part of HIPRC’s Firearm Injury & Policy Research Program. The group’s mission is to reduce the impact of firearm injury and death on people’s lives through interdisciplinary research and collaboration with institutional, community, and governmental partners.

This study was funded by the Firearm Injury & Policy Research Program, University of Washington.