“Red flag” laws to prevent mass shootings could be on the US political table. But do they work?


On March 7, 1998, a disgruntled Connecticut State Lottery employee got up from his chair at work and began shooting and stabbing his superiors, before committing suicide. By the time the rampage was over, four people had been killed.

There may have been warning signs that he posed some kind of threat – severe depression, suicide attempts and concern from colleagues for his general well-being – which could have been described as so- saying “red flags”.

“So that got me thinking – I was in the Legislative Assembly at the time – can we find a mechanism that the police can use in these situations? And we did that,” Michael Lawlor said. , former member of the Connecticut House of Representatives.

Lawlor is the author of the first so-called red flag law in the United States, more formally known as Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPO). These orders, issued by a judge or a police officer, can temporarily restrict access to firearms to people suspected of posing a risk of violence, either to themselves or to others.

The concept appears to be gaining traction following recent deadly shootings in Buffalo, NY, and Uvalde, Texas, a potential compromise in the never-ending gun control debate.

Yet the effectiveness of these laws and their effect on preventing further mass shootings remain uncertain.

Investigators stand for a moment of silence for the victims of the Buffalo supermarket shooting, outside Tops Friendly Market on Saturday. New York is one of 19 states that have red flag laws. (Joshua Bessex/Associated Press)

The idea behind these laws is that, according to some research, mass shooters often displayed a series of disturbing behaviors before their attacks.

The laws, according to the state, allow a range of people — including families, household members, community members, or law enforcement officers — to go directly to court for an ERPO, according to the Giffords Law Center to prevent gun violence.

The definition of “red flag” may vary

What defines “red flag” behavior varies from state to state, and each uses different wording to ultimately endorse an ERPO, said Dr. Mark Rosenberg, founding director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

“Basically there has to be credible evidence that this person is very likely to hurt themselves or another,” he said. “It’s got to be a very believable threat. It’s not that somebody heard somebody say, ‘Oh, I hate these people.’ No, that’s not credible evidence of a threat.”

Jaclyn Schildkraut, acting executive director of the Regional Armed Violence Research Consortium at the New York-based Rockefeller Institute of Government, said officers must file an affidavit of arrest detailing why they want to arrest that person and outline their cause. likely.

And anyone seeking an ERPO must still be able to explain to the court why the order would be necessary, she said.

So far, 19 states and the District of Columbia have passed red flag laws. Although adoption has been slow, many states, including Florida, introduced these laws following the 2018 high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 people were killed.

Pat Gibson holds a drawing of Meadow Pollack, a victim of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The shooting prompted other states, including Florida, to implement red flag laws. (Lynne Sladky/Associated Press)

And while Republicans have generally rejected proposals for stricter gun control, the red flag laws have won the support of conservatives and pro-gun rights politicians. Several Republican senators said they would be open to a federal red flag law, although they also said they would prefer to leave such decisions to individual states.

‘If you see something, say something’

In Connecticut, it took a while for police to get to grips with the law and for people to follow the advice, “if you see something, say something,” Lawlor said.

But he said the affidavits in his state suggest the orders were used against people who actually made threats and who have huge amounts of weapons in their homes – “not just a guy having a bad day and who might have a gun in their house.”

“And very few of those people were already on the mental health radar screen,” Lawlor said. “And when you read these things, you start to appreciate how these things are sort of brewing.”

As for the effectiveness of these laws, Schildkraut suggests that some initial studies are promising. A study of Connecticut laws found that for every 10 to 20 gun withdrawals, a life was saved from gun-related suicide, she said.

“Other studies have shown that in cases where people threatened mass shootings and an extreme risk order was issued, none of those people committed mass shootings after a certain period of time,” a- she added.

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One such study at the University of California identified more than 20 cases in which the state’s red flag law was used to disarm people in an effort to prevent a mass shooting. None of the shooting threats in these cases occurred, the Washington Post reported.

However, the researchers could not say with certainty that California’s red flag law was responsible, noting that it was impossible to know if any threats were actually carried out.

And New York’s red flag law was not enough to prevent the recent mass shooting in Buffalo, where a gunman opened fire on a Tops supermarket in a black neighborhood, killing 10 and injuring three. Reports say law enforcement had referred the suspect for psychiatric evaluation after threatening his school, but he was still able to gain access to a weapon and no case was filed against him.

In that case, Fredrick E. Vars, a law professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, said he thinks the police may have misinterpreted the law. “I think they probably could have gone ahead with the red flag on that,” he said.

Vars noted that the biggest impact of red flag laws appears to be on preventing gun-related suicides.

“In terms of [an] effect on homicides or effect on mass shootings. I haven’t seen really compelling evidence yet, I think, either way,” he said.

Others have also questioned whether the red flag laws could violate the defendant’s civil liberties. In 2018, the Rhode Island branch of the ACLU expressed “great concern” about the introduction of that state’s red flag laws and “its impact on civil liberties, and the precedent it sets for the use of coercive measures against individuals, not because that they are presumed to have committed a crime, but because someone believes that they might, one day, commit one.”

Kendra Parris, a Florida-based lawyer who has represented people subject to red flag laws, said she worries people see the laws as “a panacea” to gun violence.

“It’s a wide net. And the problem, like with the one in Florida, it was so wide…it really leaves it up to each court to make that call,” she said.

“Psychiatrists can’t even accurately predict whether someone is going to be violent or not. What we’re really asking is that the lay people – meaning the cops and the courts – make those judgements” , she added.

“So do you take a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach? Because if they don’t and something goes wrong, they’re going to get eggs in their face.”

Meanwhile, Rosenberg said the United States was way behind in conducting research on measures that could prevent gun-related deaths, including red flag laws.

“We know that there is not one type of intervention for which there is strong evidence anyway,” he said.

“And these things are so complicated. You can’t know in your head whether the red flag laws are going to work for gun homicides or gun suicides. There’s no way of knowing what works without doing research.”