In the four months since a mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school, the number of states with so-called red flag laws has doubled, expanding the ability of courts around the nation to temporarily remove guns from people who are found to be dangerous.
Amid a reinvigorated debate about firearms in the U.S., the most recent state legislative sessions have delivered a resounding win for gun safety groups, who see red flag laws as a critical legal tool to get firearms away from potentially violent people before they can use them to harm themselves or others.
In most states, a person must be convicted of specific crimes before losing his or her right to possess firearms, even if the behavior sets off alarm bells. In Florida, the young man charged in the Parkland high school deaths had a history of making threats and even bringing bullets to school before the attack. Though local police were made aware of his disturbing behavior, without criminal charges and a conviction, they had no legal remedy to disarm him.
Red flag laws seek to close that gap.
Under a typical red flag law, concerned parties, most often law enforcement officers or family members, can ask courts to temporarily remove guns from a person who is showing signs of violence. If a judge finds sufficient evidence that the individual is dangerous, a “gun violence restraining order” or “extreme risk protection order” can be issued, which would require the person to remain away from all guns for a period of time. Judges can also authorize police to immediately confiscate firearms in the individual’s possession.
Before the Feb. 14 massacre in Parkland, only five states ― California, Washington, Oregon, Indiana and Connecticut ― had red flag laws on the books. Florida, Vermont, Maryland, Rhode Island and New Jersey have since joined their ranks, often with bipartisan support from legislators. Notably, three Republican governors have signed recent bills into law. A bill in Illinois is awaiting final approval from the governor, also a Republican, and a handful of states appear poised to consider such laws before the end of the legislative session.
Another sign of the growing momentum for red flag laws: Texas could be among the next states to consider legislation, after the governor, a Republican with an A rating from the National Rifle Association, called for a study on the initiative in the wake of the May school shooting in Santa Fe, south of Houston.
Gun safety advocates say the policies have emerged as a rare point of agreement between the parties as politicians face aggressive calls to respond to a string of bloody mass shootings and other gun violence.
“Lawmakers are feeling pressure to do something,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, calling the laws a moderate step forward. “It is really difficult to argue with removing guns from someone who poses a danger to themselves or others.”
Even the NRA has claimed to support red flag laws. But, in practice, the organization approves only of measures that allow individuals to have their day in court before guns are removed. That undercuts a core tenet of the laws, which are designed to quickly ― and temporarily ― disarm individuals on an emergency basis. Gun safety advocates say these laws contain adequate due-process protections because individuals are granted a hearing, scheduled one day to two weeks after the order, at which they can contest the evidence against them. The decision can also be appealed.
Just weeks after Vermont enacted its red flag law in April, police pulled over a vehicle for a malfunctioning headlight. When officers questioned the driver about his expired registration, he said he didn’t have to comply with the laws of the land. He then got out of his vehicle and began threatening the police, warning that there would be trouble if they tried to tow his car.
“I’ve got an AR-15 right fucking here,” he said, according to court documents obtained by HuffPost. “Do we need that?”
After the driver tried to get back into his car, police arrested him. In the backseat, they found a loaded AR-15 assault rifle. The safety was off. The man’s behavior concerned police enough to file an extreme risk protection order under the state’s new red flag law (only law enforcement can file these petitions in Vermont). A judge granted the order, and the man was immediately required to surrender his guns.
Vermont courts have issued only a few extreme risk protection orders so far, with the first being granted in the case of an 18-year-old accused of plotting a mass shooting at a high school.
Florida’s red flag law went into effect less than a month after the Parkland shooting and began to be used almost immediately. The first known order was obtained by Lighthouse Point police, who responded to a welfare check on a man acting erratically at his condominium building.
The man told police that he was being targeted by a neighbor who could shapeshift and resembled Osama Bin Laden. He told officers that he had to turn off the electrical breakers in his home because they were electrocuting him through his legs. Officers requested an order to seize his guns, which included two pistols, a revolver and a 12-gauge shotgun.
In another case, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office sought a risk protection order against a court bailiff who was accused of making threats against his co-workers. He allegedly stated that he wanted to burn them with a blowtorch and told one bailiff, “I’m going to exterminate you.” Others reported that on one occasion he leaned over the atrium inside the courthouse and mimed as if he were shooting people with a long gun.
The sheriff’s office removed 67 guns from his house, and he is currently on paid leave pending a psychiatrist’s evaluation. Broward County, which includes Parkland, has led the state in obtaining risk protection orders, according to an April review of courts by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. An estimated 76 orders have been served since the law was enacted.
At least one individual in Florida has been arrested for refusing to surrender his firearms after being ordered to do so. During a subsequent search of his house, deputies found an AR-15, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and a bump stock, an accessory that allows semi-automatic rifles to simulate automatic fire.
Advocates say red flag laws will save lives. There’s already some evidence that they may reduce suicides. Data out of Connecticut, which became the first state to pass this sort of measure in 1999, and Indiana, which followed suit in 2005, showed that gun suicides fell significantly in the years after the laws were fully implemented, according to a study published earlier this month.
As more states pass red flag laws, data about their effect on other sorts of violent crime may soon be available.
“There are studies being done to determine how effective they are at stopping homicides and even mass shootings,” said Watts. “In the meantime, police are saying, ‘This is an important tool,’ families are saying, ‘This is an important tool.’”
For these laws to be effective, advocates say more awareness is needed so that law enforcement and the public knows how and when to use them. In California, which enacted a red flag law in 2016, courts have issued only around 230 orders, said Allison Anderman, managing attorney at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit gun safety group launched by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was wounded by a gunman in 2011.
“My guess is that there is not enough outreach to the general public about not only the availability of this law in California but how to utilize it,” Anderman said. “To get the most utilization out of the law, there has to be a public education campaign that goes hand-in-hand with it.”
Anderman downplayed concerns that red flag laws could be abused to retaliate against individuals by improperly taking their guns.
“The law has a legal standard that has to be met, and it’s a pretty high legal standard in almost all states,” she said. “The judges who are tasked with evaluating this evidence have to do their job.”
Those who argue that the law may be misused by people with grudges are really saying that they can’t trust judges to follow the law appropriately.
“If that’s the argument you’re making, you have a far bigger problem,” Anderman added.