(NewsNation) — In Washington state, you can ask the state to deny you the right to buy a firearm.
This first-of-its-kind law was the brainchild of Democrat state Sen. Jamie Pedersen. Several years ago, a pair of law professors approached him with the idea of allowing people to voluntarily give up their gun rights.
“Their basic pitch was, ‘Hey, if you give people the power to do this then folks who know that they are suffering from some sort of mental illness…. when they have a break, do harm to themselves would be empowered to prevent that by getting firearms away from them in advance,” he said.
The law — passed in 2018 — allows residents to submit a short form to their county clerk’s office in any county in the state. If they change their mind, they have to wait seven days before the county can revoke it.
Pedersen called it a valuable tool that can help prevent tragedies without outside coercion.
“It’s a libertarian kind of tool, right? It’s an option that’s available for people. So there’s nothing particularly oppressive about it,” he said.
These laws stand in contrast to “red flag laws,” where a court can step in and take away someone’s gun rights if they are viewed as a risk.
However, the law may be so obscure that few people have used it. Pedersen said that as of a year ago, there were just 20 waivers in the system statewide. To put that in comparison, 864 people were killed by a firearm in the state in 2020, according to CDC statistics.
Still, the idea is catching on. Since Washington passed its law, additional states such as Virginia and Utah have put similar measures into place.
“I thought it was a good proactive way for people who had mental health problems or suicidal ideations can take some sort of proactive steps to prevent themselves from making some rash decisions if they were having problems controlling their meds or might have a relapse of their illness,” said Virginia state Sen. Scott Surovell, who helped author the law in his state.
Like in Washington state, few people have taken advantage of the law. Surovell estimated that last year between 30 and 40 people took advantage of the “do not sell” list.
One reason the laws may not be reaching many people is because of a lack of public awareness.
“I think one of the big, probably the biggest issue is that people aren’t even aware that it exists,” Pedersen said.
Pedersen acknowledges shortcomings in the law’s current implementation and wants to make changes in the future. He noted, for instance, the fact that the law includes no penalty, which prevents the FBI from keeping the prohibited person in the national instant background check system.
One proposal he’s thinking about is making it a civil infraction to violate the waiver.
Second, Pedersen wants to expand public knowledge about the law.
“We’re also planning to add language that would actually encourage mental health professionals to talk with their patients about the availability of the voluntary waiver,” he said.
To Surovell, the Virginia state senator, the positive feedback he’s received is evidence that the law was needed.
“A lot of people don’t identify very well with people who’ve been through suicidal ideation…so it’s hard for a lot people to understand. But the people who’ve been through it, a lot of them have thanked me for putting it in,” Surovell said.