Can red flag laws prevent mass shootings?

·Senior Editor
·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Recent mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas, have once again pushed the issue of guns to the center of political debate. With gun control initiatives like a ban on assault weapons appearing all but impossible due to Republican opposition, talks between Democrats and Republicans have reportedly focused on a small number of more modest reforms that could receive enough bipartisan support to become law.

The most realistic path to an agreement, according to multiple reports, centers around what are commonly known as red flag laws. Red flag laws allow family members, close contacts, law enforcement and, in some cases, medical professionals to petition a court for the authority to confiscate a person’s guns and block them from purchasing firearms if they pose a serious risk to themselves or others.

Red flag laws are currently in effect in 19 states and Washington, D.C. The majority of those laws were passed in the months following the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Unlike most gun control measures, a fair number of Republicans have shown support for red flag laws — or at least not expressed vehement opposition to them. Florida’s law was signed by former Gov. Rick Scott, a staunch conservative who now serves in the Senate. Other high-profile GOP senators, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida, have proposed legislation to encourage states to adopt their own red flag laws.

Why there’s debate

Advocates say red flag laws help reduce gun deaths by giving the people who are most likely to recognize warning signs of future violent behavior the power to intervene ahead of time. People who commit mass shootings are “nearly always in a state of crisis” at the time of the attack and in most cases “[leak] their plans before opening fire,” according to a Department of Justice report released earlier this year. Without red flag laws in place, supporters say, authorities have limited ability to block someone clearly signaling intent to do harm from accessing firearms. There is also some research that suggests red flag laws may be particularly helpful at preventing more common forms of gun violence, including suicides.

But skeptics question how effective red flag laws can actually be at preventing mass shootings and worry that countless innocent people will have their Second Amendment rights violated if authorities cast too wide a net in enforcing the laws. Some argue that the Buffalo shooter — who was allowed to acquire firearms despite living in a state with a red flag law and displaying behavior that could have triggered an emergency order — shows how difficult it is to differentiate between people who are merely acting out and those who truly plan to commit acts of violence.

Even supporters of red flag laws say the current versions on the books in certain states are far from perfect. One issue, they say, is the laws are too limited in the types of behavior that can trigger an emergency order and in who is allowed to petition to have someone’s guns taken away. Another major problem, they say, is lack of awareness. In many cases, people close to someone displaying dangerous signs aren’t aware they have the option to try to have their guns taken away — sometimes even the police don’t know, researchers say.

What’s next

Reports from Capitol Hill suggest that the odds of a nationwide red flag law being passed by Congress are relatively slim, but there is potential for bipartisan agreement on legislation that would create incentives — like federal grants — to encourage states to enact their own. It’s still unclear whether even that more limited approach can garner enough GOP votes to overcome the Senate filibuster.

Perspectives

Supporters

Red flag laws create room for authorities to intervene when mass shooters broadcast their plans

“As the Texas atrocity showed again, killers of this ilk advertise their inclinations online and offline. They advertise their acquisition of weapons. They give voice to threats because making threats meets the same psychological need that acting on those threats does.” — Holman W. Jenkins Jr., Wall Street Journal

Red flag laws are the rare gun control measure that is both effective and politically feasible

“They aren’t infallible: Nothing could be in a country awash with guns. But more than half of mass shooters exhibited clear warning signs before committing their crimes, which makes such laws worthwhile. When it comes to gun control, the combination of efficacy and feasibility is rare. Policy makers should seize the moment.” — Editorial, Bloomberg

Red flag laws can fill in the gaps in our nation’s gun porous control laws

“Given the prevalence of guns, background checks and weapon bans are extraordinarily easy to circumvent, especially for motivated killers who plan their crimes in advance. A red-flag law, by contrast, would apply in most mass shooting situations, would permit police to seize weapons, and provide a breathing space that could permit rigorous mental evaluation.” — David French, The Atlantic

Even if the laws prevent only a small number of massacres, they’re worth having

“The steady stream of recent mass shootings can create a sense of hopelessness and inevitability. It is essential to pull the right lessons out of the rapid current. As long as there are hundreds of millions of firearms in America, we will not end mass shootings, but smart public policy can reduce them.” — Ian Ayres and Fredrick Vars, The Hill

Red flag laws may not stop mass shootings, but they can still save many lives

“To be sure, red flag laws are no panacea for mass violence. Such laws are more effective in preventing suicides – the majority of gun deaths each year – and not mass shootings.” — Patrik Jonsson Staff and Noah Robertson, Christian Science Monitor

The laws can be implemented in a way that respects Second Amendment rights

“We are sympathetic to fears that ‘red flag’ provisions could be abused, but we would note that states such as Florida have shown that it is possible to balance effective interventions with the rigorous due-process protections to which all Americans are entitled.” — Editorial, National Review

Skeptics

It’s very difficult to identify people who pose a legitimate danger

“Though ‘threat to oneself or others’ seems to be a clear enough requirement in theory, in practice it’s very difficult to determine if a person with no obvious criminal or mental illness history poses such a threat. That’s why a piece of legislation clearly is not enough on its own. There needs to be education and training.” — Editorial, Buffalo News

Countless Americans could have their rights violated by overzealous authorities

“People who favor [red flag laws] rarely consider the consequences for individuals who can be deprived of their Second Amendment rights based on little more than unvalidated allegations. … A wider net is bound to ensnare many people who do not actually pose a threat.” — Jacob Sullum, Reason

The Second Amendment places strong limits on how aggressive red flag orders can be

“Texas doesn’t have a red-flag law and it’s not obvious it could’ve been invoked in time to stop [the shooter]. It’s also hard to imagine a law passing constitutional muster that could stop weirdos who pick fights with people and cut themselves from exercising their constitutional right to own a gun absent an official paper trail.” — Sal Rodriguez, Orange County Register

Lack of awareness among the public seriously undermines the effectiveness of the laws

“What we’re seeing is that where you have that robust training, you have people who are dedicated to this, this is their job or a good part of their job, we see better success. The laws don’t self-execute. These are very new laws. We need to make sure that we support them.” — Josh Horwitz, gun violence researcher, to Vox

The criteria for what can trigger an emergency order is too narrow

“The shooter’s violent racist threats might have escaped detection, even if New York’s red-flag law had instructed people to look for it. Nevertheless, these laws should be improved to reduce the risk of future racially motivated or psychosis-driven mass shootings. Laws are made for the future, not the past.” — Ian Ayres and Fredrick E. Vars, Washington Post

Red flag laws may make people afraid to seek out mental health treatment

“The use of ex parte hearings, where the subject of the order isn't able to argue in their defense before the confiscation order is issued, has engendered considerable backlash. … They may also further dissuade gun owners from seeking mental health treatment if they fear their guns could be seized as part of the process.” — Stephen Gutowski, Dispatch

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

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