Powerful personal testimony from Republican senator who lost his son to suicide helps push bill through

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: PARIS ACHEN - Suicide-prevention advocates set up 762 empty chairs at the Oregon Capitol in April, representing the 762 Oregonians who killed themselves in 2015.People deemed at "imminent risk" of killing themselves or injuring others could have their guns taken away under a bill now headed to Gov. Kate Brown for a signature.

In the Senate, SB 719 was approved largely along party lines, 17-11.

But 16 Democrats were joined in support by Republican Sen. Brian Boquist, who lost his 31-year-old son and Navy veteran to suicide more than a year ago — and three soldiers under his Army command to suicide after they returned from the Iraq War more than a decade ago.

Boquist's son committed suicide Feb. 16, 2016, in the midst of the Legislature's session. Boquist wrote a statement read by Senate President Peter Courtney the day after the suicide that said his son, Seth Sprague, had "never fully recovered from the tragedy of war."

Ten Republicans were joined in opposition by Sen. Betsy Johnson, a Democrat from Scappoose. Two others were absent.

"Everyone wants to promote this as a gun bill. It's not," said Boquist, the bill's main floor manager. Boquist's district stretches from Hillsboro near Jackson Bottom Wetlands south to the Corvallis area.

"We want to make sure individuals do not lose their gun rights. We are trying to help family members help those individuals."

The bill allows members of a person's immediate household — or police at their request — to seek an "extreme risk protection order" from a judge to deny possession of firearms if the person is at imminent risk of suicide or a danger to others.

The judge would have to decide on the request that day or the next judicial day, but the petitioner would have to present "clear and convincing evidence" to justify the order. A person would have 30 days to request a hearing to rescind an order.

"We are targeting only those individuals who want to commit suicide and unfortunately may murder their spouse, their children or their roommate in the house. That is how we wrote it," Boquist said. "This is not some broad, sweeping confiscation like you see in Breitbart News."

His reference was to the website formerly run by Steve Bannon, now chief strategist for President Donald Trump.

Boquist said similar processes already are in place in several states, among them Connecticut, California and Washington, where voters in 2016 approved a ballot measure containing it. He said the Washington law is broader than SB 719.

In Connecticut, several hundred protection orders have been issued since the law was enacted in 1999, Boquist said. It's credited with saving lives and has been upheld by the courts, he said.

Course of action

Although Boquist did not mention his son during Senate debate, he did talk about the three Army veterans under his command who took their own lives after returning from Iraq. He said during his years in the House and Senate, going back to 2005, he has kept an index card on his desk.

"On that card are (the names of) the people I sent to die," he said. "There is not a serving general officer who sent more people to die than I have — not one," said Boquist, who leads the Senate Veterans' Committee.

"For 12 years, this Legislature has struggled on what to do about veterans' suicides and veterans and suicide in general."

About 40,000 people take their lives nationwide each year, according to federal statistics. Oregon has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, including among veterans, Boquist said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oregon recorded a suicide rate of 19.3 per 100,000 in 2016 — and it is rising faster than the growing national rate.

No Democrat spoke other than Majority Leader Ginny Burdick of Portland, who closed debate and praised Boquist for his courage and integrity.

"By identifying signs that a person may be suffering trauma and temporarily separating them from their firearms, we can effectively protect veterans and others in crisis so that they can get the help they need," Burdick said.

What opponents said

Perhaps because a fellow Republican was its chief manager, Republican opponents refrained from harsh criticism.

Sen. Kim Thatcher of Keizer, one of two Republicans to oppose it in the Senate Judiciary Committee, complained it was too vague.

Thatcher teared up in her closing remarks.

"I am not a veteran (pause) but my family has been touched by suicide," she said. "There is something that is just not addressable by legislation, and that is the unpredictability of the human mind.

"I have no doubt that this legislation brought forth was out of concern and caring. But it comes down to words on paper. I do not think it will make any difference."

Sen. Alan Olsen, R-Canby, also an Army veteran, said the real answer is an expansion of mental health services.

"We are the problem because we have not solved it," he said. "It looks good, feels good, but it does not help anyone."

Boquist said he agreed, but he took a political beating when he teamed up in 2013 with Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, to secure more money for mental health through higher tobacco taxes.

He referred to incidents in April in Gresham and West Linn. In the April 12 incident in Gresham, police say the man shot his two daughters before taking his own life. On April 21, West Linn police shot a man dead in an incident ruled as a suicide.

Days ago, the Senate passed a bill requiring police to undergo training in how to avert suicide.

"That is unfortunately the training we have given them: Show up, talk the guy down, and if it doesn't work, use your Glock," Boquist said.

"But that is not what we need to be doing in this state."

Reaction from groups

Jenn Lynch, president of the Oregon Alliance for Gun Safety, praised the bill: "Oregonians can work together to find effective solutions to make our communities safer."

Americans for Responsible Solutions, the gun violence prevention group co-founded by former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, offered this statement from Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese, member of the advisory committee for Oregon Coalition for Common Sense: "Throughout my career, I have seen how guns in the hands of individuals who are at risk of harming themselves or others can lead to tragedy. Today's vote by the Oregon Senate is a positive step towards giving law enforcement the tools we need to help people in crisis and make our state a safer place to live."

But te bill drew expected criticism and praise from the usual interest groups.

The National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action called the bill "unnecessary and goes far beyond existing law," but avoided personal references to Boquist.

Oregon Firearms Federation, which bills itself as a no-compromise group, described Boquist as a "formerly pro-gun Republican" and SB 719 as "one of the most dangerous pieces of legislation the anti-gunners have ever dreamed of."

Representatives from both groups said the bill denies gun owners due process and provides no mental health services to address the root cause of suicide.

"This Republic is about keeping people free, and I wish it was within our power to keep people safe, but the fact is when we have a conflict with the right of citizens, I have to side with them," said Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, who voted against the bill and presented a minority report offering an alternative to the bill on the House floor last week.

The House passed the bill 31-28. The governor is expected to sign it.

Paris Achen of the Capital Bureau contributed to this story.

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