Whether or not red flag laws do much to prevent mass shootings is a more difficult question to answer.
The 2019 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 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 supported 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 calculated 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 explained. "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 who are suicidal, or eventually become that way, to obtain guns. "We focus all this attention on the point of sale, people who have felony criminal record or mental health record, " Swanson said. "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 said. 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 said.
Even so, a red flag law might stop a few mass killings, 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.
Originally Published: Sep 26, 2019