California's Red Flag Law May Be Working To Stop Mass Shootings

A study of 21 individuals barred from owning firearms found none were later involved in gun violence.
People browse firearms in an exhibit hall at the NRA's 2018 convention in Dallas, Texas.
People browse firearms in an exhibit hall at the NRA's 2018 convention in Dallas, Texas.

So-called “red flag” laws, a tool to temporarily keep firearms away from people whose families think they pose public danger, have gained renewed attention in recent weeks as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle search for middle-ground responses to the recent wave of mass shootings

As of this week, supporters of those laws can point to new evidence that they may actually work.

Research published Tuesday from the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine’s Violence Prevention Research Program found in a study of 21 people who were either blocked from purchasing guns or forced to give up the ones they already owned under California’s 2016 red flag law that none went on to shoot themselves or others. 

“[T]hese cases suggest that this urgent, individualized intervention can play a role in efforts to prevent mass shootings, in health care settings and elsewhere,” the authors wrote in the study, which was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

After courts provided the researchers with records for 159 of the 414 people targeted by California’s red flag law between 2016 and 2018, they narrowed in on the 21 cases in which both the court order was actually applied and the at-risk person had firearm access. 

The 21 subjects included a number of teenagers, including a 14-year-old boy reported by his school after he posted videos of himself using guns and making racist remarks and favorable comments about school shootings online. His father owned a 9-mm semiautomatic pistol and a .30-caliber rifle.

Several other subjects in the study had threatened violence against co-workers, family members, medical professionals and other authorities. 

Though it’s impossible to know how those individuals would have behaved had the courts not taken action, as the researchers acknowledge, data shows mass shooters often exhibit the behavior that prompts a red flag order. According to Department of Homeland Security statistics from recent years, nearly every mass shooter made threats of violence prior to carrying out their attacks.

Previous research into red flag laws has not delved into their efficacy of preventing mass shootings, the study noted. Until now, studies had mainly explored whether the laws were effective at preventing suicide. A 2018 report from the journal Psychiatric Services, for example, found that gun suicides declined significantly in Connecticut and Indiana after they implemented red flag laws.

This study comes as the California legislature weighs 10 bills that would strengthen the state’s red flag law, including efforts to expand a person’s firearm ban from one year to five, broaden who can report a person and better train police on how to implement the law. 

California was the first of 17 states and the District of Columbia to pass some type of red flag law, and it remains one of the strictest.

In a rare break from gun lobbying groups, President Donald Trump said earlier this month that he supported more red flag laws.