Red Flag Laws Tool for Prevention 08/24 09:06
(AP) -- After a white supremacist discussed plans on Facebook for a mass
shooting at a synagogue, police in Washington used a new law to quickly seize
his 12 firearms, long before he was convicted of any crime.
But when a Tennessee father became alarmed about his son after receiving a
suicidal text message, he said the police determined they could not take his
son's guns away. A few months later, the man showed up at a church and shot
seven worshippers one Sunday morning, killing one.
Family members and police routinely face agonizing decisions when otherwise
lawful gun owners reveal an impulse to harm themselves or others, and a more
states are enacting laws that let authorities take away their weapons.
With bipartisan support in many cases, 17 states and Washington D.C. have
now passed "red flag laws" that allow the court-ordered removal of guns from
people who are considered to be dangerous. The back-to-back shootings that
killed 31 people this month in Texas and Ohio have given new momentum to
proposals pending in several other states and to a plan in Congress to provide
grant money to states that adopt such measures.
In a rare victory for gun control advocates, the laws have spread since the
February 2018 shooting that killed 17 students and staff members at a high
school in Parkland, Florida. New York's new law takes effect Saturday while New
Jersey's begins Sept. 1.
Since most of the laws are new, research on their effectiveness is limited.
A study published last year estimated that the two states with the
longest-standing laws, Connecticut and Indiana, may have had 500 fewer gun
suicides over a decade as a result of the measures. Another study estimated
that Connecticut, which adopted its law in 1999 after a mass shooting at the
state lottery office, prevented one suicide for every 10 to 20 people subjected
to gun seizures.
A study published this week about California's law found 21 examples in
which people who had threatened public shootings were successfully disarmed.
In jurisdictions where red flag laws have been aggressively enforced,
officials say the measures have likely prevented some suicides, workplace
shootings and domestic killings.
"I'm convinced that having this powerful tool gives our communities the
ability to step in and prevent some tragedies from happening," said Mara
Elliott, the city attorney in San Diego, where more than 300 gun violence
restraining orders have been issued in less than two years. "Given the numbers
that we are seeing, I think that's startling."
She said the orders have been used to protect people from "all walks of
life," including students, employees, intimate partners, parents and children.
Those disarmed by red flag orders include a man who made online threats of a
mass shooting at a gay bar, a man who told a family member he was going to kill
Muslims, and a man who made disturbing statements about guns and immigrants. To
grant a final order under California's law, a judge must find evidence that the
person poses "significant danger."
In Florida, courts have granted more than 1,800 risk protection orders since
its law passed in March 2018, data shows. Other states report anywhere from
dozens to hundreds of cases per year.
The state laws vary greatly, particularly over which individuals can
petition for orders and the standard of proof they must show to be granted. And
their enforcement differs by local jurisdiction, with cities like San Diego and
Seattle and pockets of Maryland and Florida using them more aggressively than
Proposals in several states, including New Hampshire, Nebraska and
Tennessee, have stalled after opposition from gun rights activists and, in some
cases, divisions among law enforcement over whether they go too far.
Critics of the laws say they can result in the seizure of guns from
law-abiding citizens based on thin claims of danger or false and exaggerated
allegations. While many police chiefs have publicly supported red flag laws,
other law enforcement leaders contend that they infringe on constitutional
rights and will create an expensive new mandate to store guns. And the death of
an officer who was shot by a suspect while serving a warrant last year under
Maryland's new law highlighted the danger to the police responsible for seizing
"It creates almost an instant situation of potentially deadly force, and you
have to think, are we initiating that confrontation?" said Matt Barrall, vice
president of the Nebraska chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.
Barrall testified in February in favor of a red flag law in Nebraska. But he
said his group has since revisited its position and may be less supportive in
At the center of the debate are questions over whether the laws disarm truly
dangerous people. Supporters say that the laws give people who are in mental
distress time to cool off or get mental health treatment.
"It's not going to work in 100 percent of the situations but I feel like it
gives you that extra time," said Marilyn Balcerak, who campaigned for the
Washington law after her son killed his step-sister and himself in 2015. She
had asked police whether she had any legal way to keep guns from her son after
he had threatened suicide, but was told there wasn't.
The threat to the Washington state synagogue came from Dakota Reed, who came
to the FBI's attention after the Anti-Defamation League reported a series of
Facebook posts that threatened Jewish people last year. They included photos of
Reed in his bedroom with firearms and Nazi salutes, posts that glorified other
well-known shooters and repeated references to plans to carry out a mass
shooting in the year 2025. "I'm shooting for 30 Jews," Reed wrote in one.
Reed told police that he was just venting anger and trying to get attention
with his Facebook posts, which he said were intended as fiction. But he
continued posting slurs and threats while free on bond, including one in which
he mused about taking a "grenade launcher" to a courthouse. By then, police had
seized his assault-style rifle and 11 other guns after a judge signed an
extreme risk protection order.
There was no red flag law in Tennessee before the September 2017 shooting at
the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ. Advocates argue it's the type of deadly
event that the state could potentially prevent by passing the change.
Emanuel Samson's father, Vanansio Samson, testified in court that he
received a suicidal text message from his son in June 2017. The father said he
then tried to convince authorities to take away Samson's guns, but he said
police responded by claiming they could not infringe on his civil rights.
Police have said their report doesn't show that request being made, and that
officers deemed Samson OK when they checked on him.
Samson, who had a history of mental illness, killed a woman in the church
parking lot before entering the building. Wearing a clown-design motorcycle
mask, he struck six other worshippers in a spray of bullets and pistol-whipped
"If (police) had detained him and taken him for an evaluation that time,
because I believe that sickness was out there, we would have not been sitting
here today, or this tragedy would have not happened," Vanansio Samson testified.
Emanuel Samson was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison