This summer’s mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, accelerated calls for more red flag or extreme risk laws in the states as well as helped jumpstart bills in Congress. The laws allow courts to order the seizure of firearms from those believed to pose an imminent danger to themselves or others. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have passed them.
But, while the political focus may be on mass shootings, states are using the laws far more often to prevent cases of individual gun violence, including suicide.
In gun-friendly Vermont, Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed a package of gun control legislation into law in April 2018, including an extreme risk law. He said he had been “jolted” into action by what he called a “near miss”: an alleged plan by an 18-year-old to carry out a mass shooting at a high school in Fair Haven, Vt.
In the 16 months since the law has been in effect, Vermont, with a population of about 627,000, has issued some 30 extreme risk protection orders, or ERPOs.
One of them was served on 28-year-old Sean Laskevich, of Springfield, Vt. Appearing recently in Windsor County Superior Court, Laskevich chose not to contest the ERPO filed against him, so that he wouldn’t complicate the criminal case he’s also facing. Under the terms of the ERPO, Laskevich is prohibited from purchasing, possessing, or receiving a firearm for six months – or longer, if the order is renewed.
The incident that led to his legal trouble started just before 10 p.m. on July 26, when the Springfield Police Department started getting a flood of 911 calls:
“There’s a guy screaming and hollering.”
“He’s just screaming at the top of his lungs.”
“I’m pretty sure I just heard a gunshot.”
“I just heard him let off like 10 rounds.”
“Oh! Oh! I just heard another shot!”
It all went down in the woods behind the house that Laskevich shares with his girlfriend, Amanda Barbour, and her children.
“Sean had a legitimate breakdown, to say the least,” Barbour says. “He just in one night couldn’t take it anymore. And he felt that maybe everybody and everything was better off without him.”
That night, Laskevich headed down a steep slope, across a stream, and up the opposite bank, armed with his .45 caliber Glock pistol, and started firing off shots. More than a dozen officers responded to the scene: among them, Springfield Police Chief Mark Fountain, who was roused out of bed.
“I grabbed my AR-15. I had my AR-15 ready to go,” he says. “As quickly as I arrived I was told by one of the officers that a number of times [Laskevich] had discharged his firearm. I believe one of the bullets had ricocheted and they heard it whizzing over their head.”
According to a police affidavit, Laskevich was shouting that he was distraught over his recent DUI arrest after he crashed his truck, as well as relationship trouble with Amanda.
He repeatedly raised his pistol to his head, yelling “I am done.” “This is how I’m going out.”
Amanda Barbour heard that, too, as well as another threat: “He wanted to be taken out,” she says. “He announced to the officers, ‘I want you to take me out.'”
In other words, suicide by cop.
At one point, Barbour says, they all heard a single shot from far back in the woods. Then: silence.
“Oh, did I scream for a minute,” she says. “That made our hearts stop.”
It was a relief, she says, when Sean started yelling again.
The standoff and negotiation went on for nearly two hours. In the end, Laskevich gave himself up, was disarmed, and taken to the hospital for mental health screening. He faces misdemeanor criminal charges, as well as the ERPO, which falls under civil law. Laskevich declined to speak with NPR, on the advice of his criminal defense lawyer.
Despite all that happened that night, Amanda Barbour says she’s confident that Laskevich poses absolutely no threat. Taking his gun away, she says, is not right.
“Obviously what Sean did was not OK in any way, and he has answered to the consequences,” she says. “I do not feel that man should have to relinquish his Second Amendment for a minute because of this. I don’t feel there’s any danger whatsoever in [my] or my children’s safety when it comes to that man having a firearm. As a matter of fact, it’s a little unnerving not having one.”
Talk to prosecutors and law enforcement officers in Vermont and they’ll tell you that the state’s red flag law has proved most useful in cases like this one, where someone poses a risk of suicide. Vermont has a higher rate of suicide, and suicide by gun, than national rates. In cases like these, red flag laws offer an important tool to protect public safety, says police chief Fountain.
“It doesn’t always have to involve a person committing a crime,” he says. “It can just simply be a person, let’s say, who is experiencing a mental health crisis involving a weapon, where they are just threatening harm to themselves.”
While it’s mass shootings that have become the catalyst for enacting red flag laws, Vermont prosecutors are dubious that that’s their best use.
“Has it prevented a mass shooting thus far?” asks Erica Marthage, state’s attorney for Bennington County. “Who knows? Who can tell? In my view, clearly the overwhelming [use] is for domestic-related fatalities and suicide. It’s another safeguard.”
David Cahill, the state’s attorney for Windsor County, is similarly skeptical.
“I don’t for a minute believe that red flag laws will in any meaningful way interrupt the epidemic of mass shootings in this country,” he says.
“I hate to say this,” he continues, “but I believe the mention of red flag laws in response to what happened in El Paso and in Dayton is a bit disingenuous. It’s intended to be a distraction…. To say that red flag laws would solve the problem of mass shootings would be to suggest that all you need to do surgery is a scalpel.”
To really solve the problem, Cahill says, would require a different, much harder conversation.
“The tough part is that I can’t think of a way to solve this problem without amending the Constitution,” he says. “I’m not suggesting that I have language to rewrite the Second Amendment, because I don’t. But it’s worth having the conversation about our modern weapons, this 18th century document, and what we can do to honor our history but also preserve life for ourselves and future generations.”
Cahill, himself a gun owner, adds, “We’re not having that discussion. But we should.”