A new Massachusetts law allows police, family members and dating partners to request that firearms be temporarily taken from people who appear to be at risk of harming themselves or others.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s (R) signature of H. 4760 on Tuesday makes Massachusetts the 12th state with a so-called red flag law, and the seventh to enact this sort of legislation since the February mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. The law takes effect in 45 days.
Baker said earlier he would sign the bill, citing the support of the state’s police chiefs.
The Massachusetts process for seeking an order for extreme-risk protection looks a lot like it does in other states that have red flag laws. Once a petition is filed against a gun owner, a judge must hold a hearing within 10 days to determine if that person poses a valid risk. If so, the judge will order the person to surrender all firearms and stay away from guns for 12 months. The subject must turn over firearms ID cards and permits, and will be entered into a federal database barring them from purchasing guns elsewhere.
The Massachusetts law also allows emergency extreme-risk protection orders that can be approved without notice to the gun owner. Under this process, firearms are immediately removed for up to 10 days ahead of a hearing, where a judge decides whether to extend the order for a full year.
Red flag laws have emerged as the most popular legislative response to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, which left 17 students and staffers dead and many more injured. The accused gunman expressed violent intentions in the years leading up to the shooting, but police said they had no legal way to disarm him without an arrest and conviction.
Advocates say red flag laws give the people closest to gun owners a tool to remove firearms from a situation before it turns deadly. Extreme-risk protection orders may thwart mass shootings like Parkland, advocates say, and recent studies suggest the orders may have an even larger effect on suicides, which account for more than half of all gun deaths in Massachusetts and around two-thirds of them nationwide.
The new law will save lives and make Massachusetts even safer, said state House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D), a key supporter of the legislation.
“While Massachusetts already has some of the most effective laws in the nation ... it is our goal not merely to be the safest state in our own country,” DeLeo said in a statement to HuffPost. “We believe Massachusetts should stand with the safest places in the world.”
Before Parkland, only California, Washington, Oregon, Indiana and Connecticut had red flag laws. Florida, Vermont, Maryland, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Delaware passed laws since the massacre. A bill in Illinois awaits the governor’s signature.
Student activists and survivors of the Parkland shooting have been leading the push for new red flag laws. They were active in the Massachusetts legislature this year, where the red flag law got more GOP votes than any other gun bill in recent history, said John Rosenthal, founder of the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Stop Handgun Violence. He said the youth-led gun safety movement played a significant role in that bipartisan achievement.
“Had Parkland not happened and the student movement not commenced, it would have been harder to pass this bill,” said Rosenthal. “Even in Massachusetts, gun bills are hard to pass.”
Just one Republican state senator ended up voting against the Massachusetts measure, joined by 15 GOP state House members.
The addition of extreme-risk protection orders in Massachusetts strengthens what are already some of toughest gun laws in the U.S. The state bans many assault weapons, including certain semi-automatic AR-15 rifles, and restricts high-capacity ammunition magazines. It was one of the first states to pass legislation last year outlawing rifle accessories known as bump stocks after they were used in the attack on a music festival in Las Vegas.
Massachusetts also has a strict gun-permitting process, which gives local law enforcement officials discretion over who can purchase and possess firearms.
Pro-gun groups have resisted Massachusetts’ gun curbs through lobbying and legal challenges. The National Rifle Association and Massachusetts-based Gun Owners Action League both opposed the new red flag law, citing concerns that the immediate confiscation of guns under emergency order violates due process. Gun Owners Action League criticized the legislation for focusing too much on the role of guns in violent situations, and not putting forth enough resources for mental health services.
“Its strict purpose is to take the gun, not provide help,” the group recently wrote.
Supporters of the red flag law say it preserves due process, because it allows gun owners a chance to contest the facts and ask a judge to overturn an order.
Rosenthal said the pushback shows that gun groups are often consumed by ideology and indifferent to the positive effects of gun laws.
“Massachusetts has the lowest gun fatality rate in the nation ― a 40 percent reduction since 1994, when we started changing the conversation on guns,” Rosenthal said. “We’ve debunked the idea that mass shootings by mentally ill people and suicides can’t be reduced through legislation.”