Can You Get in Trouble for Not Flying the U.S. Flag at Half-staff?

By: Dave Roos  | 
Park Service employee lowers U.S. flags
A Park Service employee lowers U.S. flags on the grounds of the Washington Monument to half-staff, Oct. 2, 2017. President Donald Trump ordered the flags on all federal buildings to fly at half-staff following the mass shooting that left more than 50 dead in Las Vegas. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

More than half of all households in the United States own an American flag, according to a 2020 poll. But not all American flag owners are aware of the extensive rules that govern flag etiquette in the United States, including when and how to lower a flag to half-staff.

Lowering a flag to half-staff (or half-mast when it's on a ship) as a symbol of public mourning dates back centuries. In the U.S., flags have traditionally been lowered following the deaths of presidents and other prominent public officials. But in recent decades, the practice has been extended to mourn other types of tragedies, including the deaths of foreign dignitaries, U.S. servicemen, victims of mass shootings and COVID deaths.


Some individuals and veterans organizations, including the American Legion, complain that there are way too many half-staff proclamations. In 2015, for example, flags were lowered to half-staff for 328 days (nearly 90 percent) of the year somewhere in the United States based on proclamations from the president or state governors.

"Those individuals and agencies that usurp authority and display the flag at half-staff on inappropriate occasions are quickly eroding the honor and reverence accorded this solemn act," says the American Legion website.

The question is: Can you actually get in trouble — cited, fined or even arrested — for failing to lower an American flag to half-staff?


Flag Code Is Law Only for the Government and Military

mayor lowering flag to half-staff
Former San Clemente Mayor Wayne Eggleston lowers the U.S. flag to half-staff at Park Semper Fi in San Clemente, California in 2020 to honor a marine accidentally killed during training off San Clemente Island. Mayors may order flags lowered, but this is a violation of the flag code. Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

There is an entire section in the Federal U.S. Code dedicated to the flag of the United States of America. This section includes the exact dimensions of the flag, how to properly recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and how to respectfully display the flag under various conditions.

What about lowering the flag to half-staff? According to the U.S. Code — which is the law of the land — only the president of the United States, state governors and the mayor of the District of Columbia can order flags to be flown at half-staff. That's done through a special proclamation or executive order. Although city mayors or other local officials may order flags lowered, this is a violation of the code, but there are no penalties for doing so.


The most important fact, for our purposes, is that those half-staff proclamations and executive orders only apply to flags flown at government buildings and military installations, not individual homes or private businesses.

"If it's your own personal flag, you can do what you like with it," says Maria Coffey, co-owner of Gettysburg Flag Works, a New York-based flag company with a comprehensive primer on half-staff dates and etiquette.

"Individuals are not acting illegally when using the flag according to their own rules," the guide says. "[The Flag code] carries no civil or criminal penalties for 'misuse' of the Flag... [It] is only required to be followed on public or government buildings."

In fact, when a president orders flags to be flown at half-staff (to mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth II in 2022, for example), the order always includes the following language:

  • "I hereby order that the flag of the United States shall be flown at half-staff at the White House and upon all public buildings and grounds, at all military posts and naval stations, and on all naval vessels of the Federal Government in the District of Columbia and throughout the United States and its Territories and possessions."
  • "I also direct that the flag shall be flown at half-staff for the same length of time at all United States embassies, legations, consular offices, and other facilities abroad, including all military facilities and naval vessels and stations."
  • When a governor issues a half-staff proclamation, it is similarly confined to "State-owned facilities," which includes state government buildings, military installations and public schools.


History of Flying Flags at Half-staff

The custom of lowering a flag to half-staff as a sign of mourning began as a maritime tradition, hence the continued use of "half-mast" as a synonym for half-staff. (A "staff" is another name for a flagpole. A flag at "half-staff" sits halfway up the pole.)

According to one popular origin story, the very first ship to lower its flag was the Heart's Ease, a British vessel whose captain was killed on an expedition to Canada in 1612. Lowering the flag may have served as a signal that something was wrong or was part of a sailing superstition that called for the flag to be lowered in order to make room for the "flag of Death."


In the United States, George Washington's death in 1799 was the first occasion for lowering flags to half-mast. President John Adams issued a proclamation ordering that "the vessels of the Navy, in our own and foreign ports, be put in mourning for one week, by wearing their colours half-mast high."

Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, presidents issued occasional half-mast or half-staff proclamations to mark the deaths of presidents, vice presidents, cabinet members, military generals and other dignitaries, and for varying lengths of time.

The practice was finally codified in 1954 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower with Proclamation 3044, which set the half-staff rules still followed today:

  • Following the death of a president or former president, the flag will be lowered for 30 days from the day of death.
  • For a sitting vice president, sitting (or retired) chief justice of the Supreme Court, or the sitting speaker of the House of Representatives, the length is 10 days.
  • For an associate justice of the Supreme Court, a member of the Cabinet, a former vice president, the president pro tempore of the Senate, the majority leader of the Senate, the minority Leader of the Senate, the majority leader of the House of Representatives, or the minority leader of the House of Representatives, flags are lowered from the day of death until their burial.
  • Proclamation 3044 also empowers presidents to order the lowering of flags for "other officials, former officials, or foreign dignitaries" as they see fit.

Over time, Congress also designated several national holidays as occasions to lower the flag to half-staff (click here to download a 2023 half-staff calendar from Gettysburg Flag Works):

  • National Firefighters Memorial Day, first weekend in May (flags lowered from sunrise to sunset)
  • Peace Officers Memorial Day, May 15 (sunrise to sunset)
  • Memorial Day, last Monday in May (sunrise to noon to honor the war dead, and raised after that to honor those currently serving)
  • Patriot Day, Sept. 11 (sunrise to sunset)
  • Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, Dec. 7 (sunrise to sunset)


How to Lower a Flag to Half-staff (With or Without a Flagpole)

Coffey at Gettysburg Flag Works says that many of their customers take flag etiquette "very seriously," even if they're not required by law.

"A lot of our customers are veterans, or have family members who served," says Coffey. "They very much look at flag etiquette information as something that should be respected and followed to a tee."


If you want to keep up with half-staff proclamations at home, a good place to start is to sign up for half-staff alerts. You'll be alerted to both national and state half-staff proclamations as well as reminded about upcoming national holidays when it's customary to lower the flag.

If you fly your flag from a flagpole, there's a correct and respectful way to lower it to half-staff. Start by hoisting the flag "briskly" to the top of the pole, then lower it "ceremoniously" to the halfway point, according to the guidelines in the U.S. Code. At sunset, raise the flag back to its full height before lowering it all the way down.

What if you don't have a flagpole? No problem. Although it's not mentioned in the U.S. Code, it's now a widely accepted custom to attach a black ribbon to a stationary American flag to symbolize mourning. The ribbon should be the same length and width as one of the red and white stripes on your flag.


Are There Too Many Half-staff Proclamations?

There has been a noticeable uptick in half-staff proclamations in recent decades. Eisenhower, who codified America's flag-lowering laws, only made 12 half-staff proclamations, according to USA Today. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon issued three, nine and 16 proclamations respectively.

The big leap came during the presidency of Bill Clinton, who tallied 50 half-staff proclamations in his two terms in office (his predecessor, George H.W. Bush only issued eight). George W. Bush continued the trend with 57 half-staff proclamations, but the current record-holder is Barack Obama, who ordered flags flown at half-staff 74 times. Donald Trump issued 41 proclamations during his term in office.


The concern among some flag owners is that lowering the flag too often has robbed the ritual of its significance.

"That's the consensus of our customer base," says Coffey. "There are so many half-staff orders that they might as well just keep it lowered. It doesn't have the same value that it should."