Translation, Please: Red Flag Laws

September 14, 2019

Red flag laws, which prevent certain people from purchasing firearms, are emerging as a rare point of bipartisan consensus in the gun debate. What exactly are they, and do they work?

“This time is different.” We have heard this refrain time and again, shooting after shooting, from Sandy Hook to Las Vegas to Parkland. Despite overwhelming public support for stronger gun laws, none of those times turned out to be different.   Congress has enacted no significant gun safety legislation since the (now-lapsed) 1994 ban on assault weapons. After a spate of mass shootings this past summer – El Paso, Dayton, Odessa – there may be some bipartisan momentum building, particularly for a legislative approach called extreme risk laws, better known as red flag laws.

What Are Red Flag Laws?

Red flag laws allow police to temporarily confiscate guns from people who are a danger to themselves or others, as determined by a judge. According to the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, roughly half of people who commit mass shootings show warning signs, and many experts and elected officials from across the political spectrum believe that removing guns from the hands of people who demonstrate these warning signs could reduce gun violence. Red flag laws make it possible to do so.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have enacted red flag laws (five of them have Republican governors, suggesting some bipartisan agreement on this approach). These laws vary somewhat by state, but they generally allow family and household members or law enforcement officers to petition a judge for an extreme risk protection order (ERPO), which restricts a person’s access to guns for a period of time, usually a few weeks at first and potentially up to a year.

Red flag laws are based on domestic violence protection orders, which exist in all 50 states and work much the same way: law enforcement officers, family, and household members, depending on the state, can ask that a judge issue a temporary emergency order to prevent imminent harm.

Do Red Flag Laws Work?

While some supporters of red flag laws have proposed them as a response to mass shootings, there is currently no clear evidence that this approach would be effective. Some state officials say they receive more requests for gun confiscations in the wakes of mass shootings, but there is not enough data to prove these confiscations ultimately avert shootings. 

Deaths from mass shootings, however, comprise a very small share of gun deaths overall.  And it’s possible that red flag laws could prevent other kinds of violence, such as violence against family members, or violence committed by people with illnesses that impair their judgment, like dementia or alcoholism. 

Evidence does support one finding:  red flag laws have a pronounced effect on suicides. Nearly two thirds of gun deaths result from suicide, and some states with red flag laws have seen a decrease in suicide rates. Research shows that extreme risk laws were associated with a 14 percent reduction in gun suicides in Connecticut and a 7.5 percent reduction in Indiana.  

Jeffrey Swanson, the Duke University School of Medicine professor who studied declines in suicide rates, says that expanding red flag laws is likely to have a positive impact. “The more ERPO laws are scaled up, and the more firearms are removed from dangerous people, the more likely it becomes that at least some mass shootings will be averted in this way,” writes Swanson. “We may never know when; we won’t see a big headline announcing what did not happen. But if mass shootings gradually decline as ERPOs are broadly implemented across the country, what will matter is that fewer people will die in senseless rampages; the why and how are less important.”

What Is Congress Doing?

Senate Judiciary Committee chair Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) are working on legislation that would create a federal grant program to encourage states to adopt red flag laws. Florida’s senators (one a Democrat, one a Republican) authored a similar proposal last year, though it never advanced to the floor for a vote. This year, some observers hope that public opinion could push the Graham-Blumenthal bill forward. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the highest-ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, introduced a similar bill in February and has asked Graham to put it up for a vote quickly.

Next Steps
Public support for red flag laws is high. Eighty-six percent of Americans support them, including strong majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. And earlier this week, 145 CEOs sent a letter to Senate leaders urging action on guns.

A few high-profile cases have also moved public dialogue toward red flag laws. When Zachary Cruz, the brother of Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz, was convicted of trespassing at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year, a Florida judge signed a risk order preventing him from obtaining guns. And in Vermont, a judge restricted firearm access to an 18-year-old who plotted a school shooting in a diary he called “Journal of an Active Shooter.” 

Will elected officials decide that this time is different and pass significant gun legislation? Without definitive commitments from Congressional leadership and the White House, it’s hard to say. But with public sentiment clearly on the side of red flag laws, politicians may find it increasingly difficult to stay silent. 

Learn More

The Law in Your State: Find out if your state has a red flag law and exactly what it does — via Giffords Law Center

Unfair to Gunowners: Critics of red flag laws say individuals are not guaranteed the due process they deserve — via Reason

Congress (In)action: Red flag laws may be gaining steam, but stronger background checks are on shakier ground due to the threat of a veto by the president– via National Review

Hard Data: An interactive chart breaks down gun deaths in the U.S., offering a glimpse at how we might tackle the problem — via FiveThirtyEight

But We Need More Data: An economist with the Rand Corporation discusses shortcomings in gun violence data and how we can improve what we know — via Christian Science Monitor

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This article originally appeared in the September 15, 2019 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and a round-up of news items — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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