Red Flag Laws Save Lives

Can allowing police to remove guns from people under extreme risk protection orders avert tragedy?

Five Figures to Consider

5 states allow guns to be seized before someone can commit violence
848 fatalities resulted from mass shootings in the U.S. from 2009 to 2016
42% of mass shooting cases involved a shooter who exhibited warning signs
99% of extreme risk protection orders served uncovered guns
1 life is saved for every 20 extreme risk protection orders issued in Connecticut

School gunman Nikolas Cruz exhibited plenty of warning signals from aggressive behavior to shooting animals, from posting on social media about plans to be a professional school shooter to chronic disciplinary problems at school.  He had been reported to the FBI at least twice and the local sheriff’s office about 20 times over the previous few years. In the five states with red flag laws, this likely would have been enough to trigger a hearing that could have led to the police removing Cruz’s guns. Unfortunately, Florida has no such laws, and in that state Cruz never met the criteria for an involuntary psychiatric hold.

Of mass shooters, 34% were prohibited from possessing firearms at the time of the shooting indicating that current safeguards in the system are insufficient. Red flag laws give an individual in crisis a timeout and way for families, concerned citizens and law enforcement to act before warning signs turn deadly. Also known as gun violence restraining orders and extreme risk protection orders, these laws allow household members and police to petition a court to temporarily remove a person’s access to guns. Neighbors, co-workers, schoolmates and others can intervene by reporting to police. After a hearing in which the person can respond to evidence, a judge can issue a final order that typically lasts up to a year and can be renewed.  

California, Washington, Oregon, Indiana and Connecticut have enacted red flag laws. Bills are currently pending in another 18 states. Connecticut enacted the first red flag law in 1999 authorizing the seizure of guns from potentially dangerous people who were not otherwise legally prohibited from gun access. Unfortunately, this law did not prevent Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter. The guns he used belonged to his mother.  He had shunned people, medication and behavioral therapies so was not known to mental health professionals or many others.

Between 2009 and 2016 848 people died in mass shootings in the U.S.; 25% of them children. Most mass shootings, defined as four or more fatalities in a single incident, are domestic violence related. Suicide, however, accounts for 60% of U.S. firearm deaths, about 21,000 annually. In both cases, 42% of shooters exhibit warning signals that they pose a danger to themselves or others. Broadly labeled anger behaviors (9% of the U.S. adult population with impulsive anger issues has access to guns at home), such as recent threats or acts of violence against others, acts of cruelty to animals, convictions for domestic violence, violations of protective orders, reckless gun use and abuse of drugs or alcohol, are imminent risk factors.  While 15%22% of mass shooters may exhibit psychosis, the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent toward others. In fact, they are more likely to be victims of violent crime. In contrast, mental illness, particularly depression, is a strong risk factor for suicide.   

Duke University researchers studied the effectiveness of Connecticut’s red flag laws. They found that from 2009 to 2013 police served 762 red flag “risk warrants.” Forty-nine percent of the gun removal cases were initially reported to the police by an acquaintance; 41% by family members, 8% by employers or clinicians and the rest by concerned citizens. Guns were found in 99% of the cases in which warrants were served, and officers seized an average of seven firearms from each person.  Additionally, an estimated one gun suicide was prevented for every 10 to 20 seizures. Most gun removal subjects were not currently known to the criminal justice system; about 88% had no other arrests. In 55% of cases police were sufficiently concerned about the mental health or intoxicated condition of the subject that they transported the individual to a hospital for evaluation. In the year following the gun seizure, 29% of people received mental health or substance abuse treatment in the state system, demonstrating that the gun removal intervention sometimes functioned as a gateway to needed treatment.

Many people at risk for committing violence do not have a record that would prohibit them from owning a gun. With no leadership from the federal government, states should follow Connecticut’s lead and pass legislation to allow for the temporary removal of guns from extreme at-risk individuals regardless of whether they qualify for involuntary psychiatric confinement.