Red Flag Laws Can Save Lives

Update: Since this was posted, the Highland Park Fourth of July parade shooting has occurred, killing seven and wounding dozens others. Illinois has a red flag law. Why did it fail? The police had one minor run-in with the suspect apparently, and it didn't involve any violence. Family members claim not to have seen any warning signs either. But the suspect's social media postings were prolific and disturbing. Those who saw them they clearly didn't follow the adage "see something, say something." Since the Uvalde shooting, Congress has passed legislation to incentivize states to pass red flag laws. The Highland Park shooting confirms what's in this post -- that red flag laws, though potentially helpful, are not a panacea and will not end gun violence.

It’s important to acknowledge that the vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent. That’s because the impression people get from the news stories about mass shootings might be otherwise. 

That being said, “red flag” laws can protect some people from themselves and protect other people. There are 19 states that have some version of the law. In my state, firearm removals are called Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs).

An ERPO is granted when police, family members, coworkers, or neighbors successfully petition a state court to have police remove firearms from the possession of someone who is deemed to be a danger to himself or others. After a period of time, six months in my state, the individual can petition to have the firearms returned, presumably after receiving mental health treatment.

ERPOs seem to provide due process. For any constitutional right to be revoked, such as life, liberty, or property, there has to be due process. 

As with any gun control measure, there’s no guarantee of total success. It's no panacea. Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke passionately called for a red flag law after the Uvalde shooting. Many are calling for a federal law now. But consider that New York has a red flag law, and the Buffalo shooting still happened. Nevertheless, the law could save some lives, and we shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of the sometimes effective.

Our red flag law was signed by our Republican governor after a credible and scary threat was uncovered at the school at which I taught. There have been a couple problems with our law. Valuable firearms collections have been ruined by police officers who carelessly ding them, bang them around, jam them into evidence lockers, and let them rust.

Our law was abused when a young teen made a credible threat and said he would steal the firearms from his uncle. The firearms were confiscated from the uncle. It was clearly an extralegal action on the part of local authorities. What if the kid had said he was going to steal from a gun store? Would the police confiscate the entire inventory of the gun store?

It’s important not to give the gun lobby an argument. Red flag laws need to be written and carried out carefully. We talk about common sense gun laws. We need to have common sense red flag laws.