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Can Red Flag Laws Prevent Mass Shootings?

More than one-third of U.S. states have a "red flag" law, but what does that mean?
More than one-third of U.S. states have a "red flag" law, but what does that mean?

This article is part of the Guns & America explainer series. You can read other entries here.

At least 19 states and the District of Columbia have passed “red flag” laws, which allow law enforcement (and sometimes family members) to ask courts to temporarily remove firearms from people judged to be a danger to themselves or others. There is some evidence that these Extreme Risk Protection Order laws are associated with lower suicide rates in states that have these laws. But they are often passed with the intention of preventing mass shootings, which garner much more public attention, even though gun suicides account for more than 60% of all U.S. gun deaths annually.

Why Pass “Red Flag” Laws?

Two states have had ERPO laws on the books for a relatively long time: Connecticut (1999) and Indiana (2005). But since the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a number of states (including Florida itself) have enacted these laws in an effort to prevent future tragedies. The accused Parkland shooter displayed numerous warning signs over the course of several years yet he was still able to carry out the attack. But does research support a link between passing “red flag” laws and preventing or decreasing mass shootings?

What The Research Says

On Preventing Mass Shootings

Researchers at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine recently studied more than 400 cases in which individuals had firearms removed by California’s Gun Violence Restraining Order law, from 2016-18. Of those, the team looked at 21 cases in which GVROs were used in efforts to prevent mass shootings. They found that as of August 2019, none of the planned mass attacks had occurred and there were no homicides or suicides among the identified cases.

On Reducing Suicide Rates

There is some evidence that “red flag” laws can prevent or decrease the number of suicides in states that have those laws on the books. A 2018 study published in the journal Psychiatric Servicesfound that in the years following the passage of ERPO laws in Connecticut and Indiana, there was a reduction in suicide rates in those states of nearly 14% and 7.5%, respectively.

And a Duke University study published in 2017 found that one suicide was averted for approximately every 11 gun removals carried out under Connecticut’s law.

On Having No Effect At All

A new report from the RAND Corporation evaluating the efficacy of various gun control laws finds that “red flag” laws have an “inconclusive” effect on total and firearm suicides. RAND said they did not find any studies in their analysis that met their criteria for inclusion that would indicate any effect on gun homicides, including mass shootings. For example, RAND determined that in the widely-cited study in Psychiatric Servicesthe data was confined to just two states and therefore was too limited to draw meaningful conclusions.

ERPOs And The Future

The number of states that have passed ERPO laws in recent years suggest that these laws enjoy more support than other gun policies. They have become popular in some polarized legislatures because they often attract bi-partisan support due to the fact that they don’t focus on removing a certain type of firearm, like an “assault weapons” ban.

Some groups oppose these laws, warning that they can infringe on the constitutional rights of gun owners, especially the right to due process. For example, hearings for ERPOs take place ex parte, or, without the party that’s being served present. Also law enforcement has broad discretion to determine what constitutes an “extreme risk” to others. There is also concern that depending on how the statute is written, these orders may be requested frivolously by estranged family members without real evidence that a person presents an extreme risk.

States continue to enact these laws and there are reports that a version of such a law is being considered at the federal level.

These laws are relatively new, and so there has been scant research on their efficacy. The research we do have seems to indicate these laws might prevent gun suicides, but the evidence for an effect on gun homicides is so far inconclusive. It’s therefore unclear what effect (if any) they can have on the number or frequency of mass shootings.

is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

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Lisa Dunn