What Are Red Flag Laws—and How Can They Save Lives?
Red flag laws are becoming more popular, but their success lies in how well they are understood and carried out
|The Reader’s Digest Version
In May 2022, two horrendous mass shootings—one that killed 19 children and two teachers in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and another that targeted Black people in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York—prompted Congress to pass the first national gun control bill since 1993. One chief feature of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act gives funds to states for starting or maintaining “red flag laws,” which experts say can lower gun deaths and injuries from mass shootings and suicides.
Already on the books in 19 states and the District of Columbia, this commonsense gun law, which removes weapons from individuals deemed to be dangerous, has already saved lives—and has the potential to save even more if additional states follow the new law’s recommendations. “I call that a win,” says Garen J. Wintemute, MD, an emergency physician and the director of the Violence Prevention Program at the University of California Davis (UC Davis). A vast majority of Americans seem to agree in the face of the nation’s stark gun violence statistics and our seeming inability to stop gun violence in America: A 2019 survey by American Public Media found that 70% to 77% of Americans are in favor of these preventative laws.
But what are red flag laws, exactly, and how do they work? As experts note, their success depends largely on whether people know how to use them—and how well they’re carried out by law enforcement and government. Reader’s Digest spoke to experts to better understand the situation, as well as to learn whether red flag laws are in conflict with the Second Amendment or would require an amendment to the Constitution.
What are red flag laws?
Red flag laws, also called Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs), are laws that temporarily remove weapons from people who appear to present a danger to themselves or others. While the specifics of these laws vary from state to state, they are all based on the concept that gun violence is often foreshadowed. About half of mass shooters, and almost all school shooters, broadcast their intentions, according to a recent study led by criminologists from St. Paul, Minnesota. Similarly, 80% of people who attempt suicide tell others of their plans, noted Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, speaking at a June 2022 Joyce Foundation seminar on gun violence.
“Words matter,” explains Grady Judd, a sheriff in Polk County, Florida. “When someone says they are going to be a danger to themselves or others, you have to take it seriously.”
Nationwide, a majority of Americans find red flag laws acceptable partly because the sanctions are temporary. “If a judge decides it’s valid to take your guns, it’s likely you will get them back after a one-year cooling-off period,” Judd says. Also, unlike most gun control efforts, which attempt to limit who can acquire firearms, red flag gun laws aim to remove firearms only from the very small minority of gun owners who may pose an immediate threat.
Which state first passed a red flag law?
Connecticut established the nation’s first red flag law in 1999, after a disgruntled accountant murdered four officials with a 9mm Glock pistol and a knife at the state’s lottery headquarters. Matthew E. Beck, 35, had lost a personnel case complaining that he was underpaid for the computer work he was doing there. On March 7, 1998, he came into the office looking “tormented,” according to the Hartford Courant. He then sought out and killed four supervisors involved in the grievance he had filed. As police closed in on him, Beck fatally shot himself in the head. Previously, Beck had shown signs of trouble. He had returned from a stress-related medical leave on February 25 and was reportedly angry at being passed over for a promotion.
In the years since, 18 other states, including California, Oregon and Florida, plus the District of Columbia passed their own red flag laws, mostly following the 2018 Parkland, Florida, high school shooting. The laws vary in minor ways, such as who can petition to have a gun removed (for instance, family members, employers, school counselors or health professionals, in addition to police) and how long the removal can last (from one to five years).
Has there been an effort to pass red flag laws at the federal level?
Federal law prohibits gun purchases for certain categories of people, such as those convicted of domestic abuse. But no federal law aimed at removing guns from individuals—that is, no national red flag law—has made it through Congress. A bill establishing a federal ERPO law (H.R. 2377) passed the House of Representatives in early June 2022, mainly with Democratic votes, but has since languished in the Senate Judiciary Committee. However, a major component of H.R. 2377, which incentivized states to adopt and maintain red flag laws, made it into the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.
“Red flag laws are likely to remain state laws,” says Veronica Pear, PhD, assistant professor at the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis. Why? Because the political power of the gun lobby effectively prevents Congress from passing national laws. “Given how hard it is to get firearm legislation through Congress,” explains Pear, “it seems more likely that states will continue to lead in this arena.”
According to Joseph Blocher, a law professor at Duke University, state control is not necessarily a bad thing: “There are some ways in which states actually have a comparative advantage when it comes to utilizing these laws: more law enforcement officers to seek petitions, more judges to hear evidence and decide whether to issue an order, and better tailoring to local needs and circumstances.” In other words, local and state courts have better resources and a superior understanding of their own communities.
How do red flag laws work?
Here’s how an ERPO case might play out:
- A concerned party reports a potentially dangerous situation. The first step involves someone—such as a neighbor, employer, classmate or relative—alerting the police that a person is a danger to himself or others. For instance, on February 15, 2018, after a friend showed police in Rutland, Vermont, a text suggesting 18-year-old Jack Sawyer was determined to shoot up his former high school, officers questioned him and started the process to remove weapons from his home.
- A judge grants a temporary order to remove firearms. Based on this kind of evidence, a law enforcement officer (or, less commonly, a family member) petitions a civil court for a temporary seizure order, which generally lasts for two to three weeks. After a judge authorizes the order, possibly during a phone call, a police officer asks the potentially dangerous person to relinquish all weapons within 24 hours to a law enforcement agency or a licensed gun dealer. One six-state study found that in 91% of ERPO petitions, the petitioner succeeded in obtaining a temporary order. Police also may take other kinds of actions at this time, such as ordering a psychiatric evaluation.
- There is a court hearing. Before the temporary order expires, the respondent and petitioner appear in front of a judge. The trial, which has a higher burden of proof than the temporary order, determines if firearms should be taken away from the respondent for anywhere from one to five years, depending on the circumstances and state laws.
- Firearms are returned. In some states, such as Florida, a respondent can petition the court to have their firearms returned before the red flag order has expired. In any state, once the ERPO has run out, a respondent can request that their weapons be returned. In California, the person must pass a background check before getting their firearms back from the police or gun dealer who held them.
Do red flag gun laws work?
According to the data, yes. “There is strong evidence that ERPO laws can prevent firearm suicides—and strong anecdotes that these laws reduce the number of mass shootings,” says Pear. For instance, one suicide was averted for every 10 to 20 times guns were seized from a respondent under Connecticut’s red flag law from 1999 to 2013, according to an analysis by Duke’s Swanson. Similar results were found in Indiana, with one study showing a 7.5% drop in firearm-related suicides in the 10 years after the law went into effect. And in a recent story for The Conversation, political science professor John Tures analyzed gun deaths in the states with newly adopted red flag laws and estimated that they saved 7,300 people in 2020 alone.
In addition, gun removals appear to have prevented several mass shootings, including school shootings. Judd can point to the successful enforcement of an ERPO in his own town against a 14-year-old middle school student who expressed admiration for the Columbine shooters. “Our investigation revealed that the student had thoughts of committing mass school shootings and that he had access to firearms and ammunition,” says Judd.
In one California study, none of 21 people whose guns or bullets were removed via red flag laws because they threatened a mass shooting went on to shoot anyone within the next year or two.
How could red flag laws work better?
Clearly, mass shootings and gun suicides continue in the United States, even in states that have red flag laws on the books. Despite ERPOs in New York and Illinois, young shooters with a history of suicide and murder threats were able to obtain semi-automatic weapons and kill large numbers of people.
One big problem? “People don’t know about red flag laws,” says Swanson. According to a 2021 California survey done at UC Davis, many people—66% in this study—have never heard of red flag laws. Firearm owners were more likely than non-owners to say they were familiar with them. Yet, according to another survey by the same research group, one in five Californians knows a person they believe is in danger of harming themselves or others.
“If people do not know what mechanisms exist to report threatening behavior, then it is difficult for the law to function as intended,” says Jaclyn Schildkraut, interim director of the SUNY Rockefeller Institute’s Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium. Specialized training for police officers, school guidance counselors and health-care providers would increase the value of these laws, says Pear.
“The public and potential petitioners [also] need to be educated on a) what constitutes a red flag and b) how to properly report it—for instance, what is the necessary evidence to submit, and where should it be submitted,” says Schildkraut. “People always need to be educated on systems, regardless of what they are, to ensure they are utilized correctly.”
Another issue is the uneven application of ERPOs across different localities. In California, San Diego County accounts for a disproportionate number of red flag cases. In New York, that distinction goes to Long Island’s Suffolk County. In Florida, Polk County plays a similar role. These places all have what’s been called “local champions”—law enforcement supervisors committed to implementing ERPOs correctly. Clearer guidance by state law enforcement officials might create more of a level playing field.
Finally, pairing police officers serving the red flag orders with mental health professionals or social workers could lead to better resolutions of crisis situations. “While no states currently follow a co-service model, experts feel that this would allow the respondent to get access to needed resources immediately, improving outcomes,” says Pear. “For instance, substance abuse is highly connected with threatening behavior, and the right professionals might steer at-risk people to appropriate treatments.”
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Who is opposed to red flag laws, and why?
Thirty-one states do not have red flag gun laws—a fact that seriously reduces their effectiveness. Gun-rights groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), the National Association for Gun Rights (NAGR) and the Gun Owners of America (GOA) vehemently oppose ERPO laws and have successfully prevented their implementation in much of the country. These politically influential organizations perceive red flag laws as infringing on individuals’ Second Amendment rights to own and carry guns. For instance, according to the NRA, red flag laws allow government to “confiscate Americans’ firearms without due process of law.”
The due-process complaint—that gun owners can lose their firearms for two to three weeks without a chance to defend themselves—is a common refrain among opponents of red flag laws. However, the Supreme Court has said that a hearing can be postponed if “there are extraordinary situations where some valid governmental interest is at stake,” wrote law professor Blocher and a colleague in a Washington Post editorial. An example would be a restraining order in a domestic violence case issued ahead of a court trial.
Other opponents worry that red flag laws could allow people with grudges to lodge complaints against gun owners. However, as Schildkraut notes, “there is a threshold that needs to be met for the ERPO to be granted, so people can’t just go file petitions because they don’t like someone.” And finally, still others worry that this is a gateway law that would lead to more comprehensive gun control laws nationwide.
How can concerned citizens support red flag laws?
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act encourages states to adopt red flag laws, but it does not require them to do so. States that are not interested in enacting these laws can use that funding for other anti-violence measures such as mental-health initiatives and drug courts. Odds are that many states that have traditionally resisted gun control laws, such as Texas and Oklahoma, will not enact ERPOs. If you want to see a red flag law in your state, first check out what the current gun laws are at Everytown for Gun Safety. Then write to your state legislators to express your support for red flag laws and their effective implementation.
To get more involved, check out these organizations that can help you strategize and work toward implementing ERPOs or other gun control strategies:
Finally, be vigilant about what’s happening around you and on social media. Make sure to report disturbing behavior by contacting authorities to get firearms and ammunition away from someone who may harm themselves or others. As Dr. Wintemute wisely notes, “if you see something, say something.”
- Garen J. Wintemute, MD, an emergency physician and the director of the Violence Prevention Program at the University of California Davis
- APM Research Lab: “APM Survey: Americans’ Views on Key Gun Policies”
- Grady Judd, a sheriff in Polk County, Florida
- UC Davis Health: “Extreme Risk Prevention Orders to Prevent Mass Shootings: What Do Researchers Know?”
- Journal of the American Medical Association: “Communication of Intent to Do Harm Preceding Mass Public Shootings in the United States, 1966 to 2019”
- The Joyce Foundation: “Extreme Risk Protection Orders: What the Research Tells Us – June 2022”
- Duke University Law: “Implementation and Effectiveness of Connecticut’s Risk-Based Gun Removal Law: Does It Prevent Suicides?”
- Veronica Pear, PhD, assistant professor at the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis
- Joseph Blocher, Duke University Law School
- Psychiatric Services: “Effects of Risk-Based Firearm Seizure Laws in Connecticut and Indiana on Suicide Rates, 1981-2015”
- The Conversation: “Red flag laws saved 7,300 Americans from gun deaths in 2020 alone – and could have saved 11,400 more”
- PLOS One: “Implementation and perceived effectiveness of gun violence restraining orders in California: A qualitative evaluation”
- Jaclyn Schildkraut, interim director of the SUNY Rockefeller Institute’s Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium
- New York Times: “How a New York County Used the State’s ‘Red Flag’ Law to Seize 160 Guns”
- UC Davis Health: “Facts and Figures”
- CNN: “Florida’s red flag law, championed by Republicans, is taking guns from thousands of people”