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Opinion | Jennifer Lugar

A red flag law could have saved my husband

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It shouldn’t have been up to me.

Nearly a decade after my husband ended his life, it’s a thought I come back to regularly. It shouldn’t have been up to me, leaving the hospital with a handful of vague worksheets after my husband had survived a suicide attempt, worried out of my mind, struggling to care for him and our daughters, ages 7 and 13, to figure out how to keep him away from his gun. But it was.

Scott was bright, loving, and funny. He loved hiking and being outside, especially at our family’s vacation house in the Smoky Mountains, where he used his handgun for sport. The rest of the time it was locked in a safe in our home.

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Scott struggled with depression and anxiety, and was getting help. But in January 2009, he was hospitalized for attempting suicide with alcohol and pills. I was shocked. I knew that he was struggling, but I didn’t see that coming.

After he was treated in intensive care and held for a few days of supervision, the doctors told me Scott could go home. A social worker handed me a checklist that told me to schedule an appointment for Scott with a psychiatrist. Almost as an afterthought, she told me that if there was a gun in our home, to remove it. Scott had the key to our gun safe, so I bought a different safe for the gun, locked it up, and hid it in the house.

A few weeks later, he attempted suicide again with alcohol and pills. But then, throughout that spring, Scott started to get a lot more help. He was feeling better. We decided to go to the mountain house with the kids for spring break. He told me he wanted his gun back to shoot targets — that it would help him feel normal. I didn’t want to give it to him, but I lost the argument.

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Feeling vulnerable and caring for a family in crisis, I didn’t know what to do to keep him from that gun. But today, many families have resources I didn’t have then.

Red flag laws — sometimes known as extreme-risk protection order laws — allow families to seek help from courts to remove guns temporarily from people who are considered a danger to themselves or others. Across the country, red flag laws are gaining momentum. Massachusetts is one of 15 states, as well as the District of Columbia, that have such a law. New York and New Jersey have red flag laws on the books, but they haven’t taken effect yet. In my home state of Pennsylvania, I recently visited lawmakers in support of a red flag bill. And Congress is considering federal legislation.

If an extreme-risk protection order had been an option after Scott’s first suicide attempt, I would have run to court to get it. But without this option, I just hoped that things would finally be OK.

Several months went by, and Scott continued getting treatment. But on Sept. 25, 2009, just before our daughter’s eighth birthday, he hit a low point. I was at work when Scott called me to say goodbye. I raced home and saw that the closet had been ransacked. Scott and the gun were gone. I called the police, and they were able to locate him using his cellphone signal. Scott was sitting in the car with his gun. Officers tried to talk to him, but ultimately, he used that gun to end his life.

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Nearly a decade later, I am left wondering what would have happened if it hadn’t been up to me to take Scott’s gun away. All I can do now is make sure that other families are not left where I was, fearing for my husband’s life, or later, with two young children who miss their dad.

When you feel helpless to reach your loved one, filing an extreme-risk protection order is one thing you can do. The organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America is holding public trainings to educate families on this option. You can go to OneThingtoDo.org to learn more about red flag laws.

Every day since Scott’s death, I have tried to bring joy back into our daughters’ lives. It was a while before we could go back to the house in the Smoky Mountains again. It was just too painful. But in 2011, we planted a tree and laid Scott’s ashes there. Now it feels like home again.


Jennifer Lugar is a volunteer at Moms Demand Action and a member of the Everytown Survivor Network. The number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255), and the suicide crisis text line can be contacted by texting TALK to 741741.