Can Red Flag Laws Help Prevent Mass Killings?

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 

Florida enacted a red flag law after 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. Don Juan Moore/Getty Images
Florida enacted a red flag law after 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

In California, the manager of a car dealership contacted police and described a scary situation. An employee allegedly had confided to a co-worker that if he was fired from his job, he would shoot his supervisor and other employees, though he would warn the co-worker in advance so he could escape.

Thanks to the red flag law that California enacted in 2014, the police could take action right away, without having to charge the employee with a crime. The cops obtained a court order and the next day seized five firearms. The court subsequently issued another order, allowing authorities to hold on to the weapons for a year.

That case, described in an article by University of California Davis researchers that was published Aug. 20, 2019, in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, is an example of what many advocate as a way to prevent the mass shootings increasingly that have traumatized the nation.


What Are Red Flag Laws?

Red flag laws are designed to give authorities a way to intervene and take guns away from a person who is perceived as a possible threat. They can do that even if the person doesn't have a criminal record or history of being institutionalized for mental illness, or other factors that might show up in the federal instant background check system and prevent him or her from buying a gun from a dealer. Loopholes and omissions in state records submitted to the background check system often has enabled to mass shooters to obtain guns, even when they should have been disqualified.

"This is about putting protocols in place, so that when an individual is identified as potentially being a threat to themselves or other people, police and courts would have the authority to remove firearms," explains Daniel J. Flannery, director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

According to Flannery, red flag laws try to strike a middle ground between protecting public safety and individual rights. A person who's flagged isn't arrested or charged with a crime, and authorities have to be able to convince a judge that them having guns poses a risk. And the person has an opportunity to get the weapons back at some point.

"But there's a due process piece to that, so that it's not automatic and not permanent," Flannery says.


Which States Have Red Flag Laws?

So far, red flag laws have been enacted by 17 states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington — and by the District of Columbia, according to Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, a group that does research and advocates measures to reduce gun violence.

In Florida, where a red flag law was enacted in 2018 in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting where 17 people were killed, authorities have utilized it to take guns away from more than 2,000 people.

Red flag laws have attracted strong public support. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in early September 2019, for example, found that 86 percent of Americans supported allowing the police to take guns away from people whom a judge finds dangerous. That included 94 percent of Democrats, 85 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of Independents.

In August, even President Donald Trump, who otherwise mostly has been an opponent of gun control, has indicated his support for red flag laws. (On the other side, the National Rifle Association's website features this May 2019 article that criticizes existing red flag laws as violating gun owners' Second Amendment rights.)

red flag laws
To date, red flag laws have been enacted by 17 states and by the District of Columbia. (States in red have red flag laws.)


Do Red Flag Laws Work?

Whether or not red flag laws do much to prevent mass shootings is a more difficult question to answer.

The recently published study by UC Davis researchers cited 21 cases in California in which a court issued an order to seize guns "after the subject of the order had made a clear declaration of intent to commit a mass shooting or had exhibited behavior suggesting such an intent." But it's really not possible to prove conclusively that any of the individuals actually would have committed these acts.

Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, wrote this recent Washington Post opinion piece, in which he argued that red flag laws aren't necessarily going to prevent killings by mass shooters, except in instances in which an "alert citizen" notices that an angry young man is amassing an arsenal.

Nevertheless, Swanson supports such laws, because he and other researchers have found strong evidence that they reduce another sort of gun violence that cumulatively inflicts a much higher death toll — suicide by firearm. In this 2017 article about Connecticut's red flag law, he and colleagues calculate that for every 20 guns seized through a red flag law, one suicide is prevented.

"Almost all of these laws — they really have been a legislative response at the state level to public concern and outcry over mass shootings," Swanson explains. "But ironically, when they're put in place, the main thing they're used for is suicide concern."

For that purpose, red flag laws manage to plug the loopholes that allow people to obtain guns who are suicidal or eventually become that way. "We focus all this attention on the point of sale, [upon] people who have felony criminal record or mental health record, " Swanson says. "Those rules are too narrow and too broad. They identify lots of people because they had an involuntary commitment 25 years ago and won't hurt anybody, and they also fail to identify people who do pose a risk." Swanson has found that 72 percent of gun suicides in Florida would have been able to legally purchase a gun on the day that they took their lives.

Preventing suicidal people from getting guns saves lives, because research shows that people who try committing suicide by other methods end up surviving 80 to 90 percent of the time, Swanson says. But with a gun, they're effective at killing themselves almost all of the time.

"From the picture of public health, that's a good enough reason" for red flag laws, Swanson says.

Even so, a red flag law might stop a few mass killing, if, say, the neighbor of a potential mass shooter notices that he's acting strangely and has amassed an arsenal of weapons. And as long as weapons suitable for mass murder remain readily available in America, it might be one of the few options available for protecting the public from more carnage.