Even if we knew more about the warning signs for shootings, authorities can only take action if they are legally authorized to do so. That is where red flag laws (they go by different names in different places) come into play. These provisions allow police, family members, and others to petition a court to order the temporary removal of firearms from people whose behavior and statements indicate they present a danger to others or themselves. Although opinion polls indicate strong support for such laws, only about a dozen states have them. Perhaps surprisingly, Florida is one of them. Not surprisingly, the National Rifle Association has opposed such laws as an infringement of the Second Amendment, although I am aware of no court agreeing with them.
In a sensible world–unlike the U.S.–all would be trying to figure out the best possible red flag laws. The details of such provisions do matter, such as the standard of proof and the duration of the firearms’ removal. We should be studying the red flag laws that exist to see what insights they offer for future or amended laws, and we would also be seeing what we can learn from orders of protection in domestic disputes, which bear many similarities to red flag laws.
Studies have shown that red flag laws have a positive effect on gun violence especially when it comes to suicides, but this aspect of the laws is important. The largest number of deaths by guns is not from mass shootings, other homicides, accidents, and certainly not from self-defense; they are from suicides. Red flag laws do not prevent all suicides or even most of them. Nevertheless, we should understand that no single reform can be expected to have a huge effect. Instead, we need many reforms each bringing an incremental decline in gun violence.
Red flag laws highlight how much more we need to know about gun violence and gun safety. We are far behind where we could be in our knowledge because of the Dickey Amendment. A study funded by the Centers for Disease Control published in the early 1990s found that having a gun in the home was correlated with an increased risk of homicide. Those conclusions, of course, undermined the NRA message and the conclusion of the Supreme Court that guns are needed for protection and the defense of liberty. In response to that study, the NRA pushed what became known as the Dickey Amendment. Passed by Congress in 1996, it stated that CDC funds available for “injury prevention and control” could not be used “to advocate or promote gun control.” Of course, while the offending study may have led reasonable people to think about gun control, the study did not advocate it. Even so, Congress not only passed the Dickey Amendment, it also reduced the CDC budget by the exact amount that the guns-in-the-home study had cost. The message became clear: no studies of guns by federal agencies if the agencies did not want their budgets slashed by Congress. (The Dickey Amendment was expanded to other government funding agencies in 2012.) However, in 2018, Congress accepted the interpretation of the Dickey Amendment by a Health and Human Services secretary; it voted to allow the government to fund and conduct research into gun violence that does not specifically advocate for gun control. The government now funds some of that research, but only at modest levels. Of course, in a sensible government, this research would have a high priority. The first defense of weak minds is to remain ignorant, and that has been the official stance of our government about gun violence. Perhaps that can be changed, but I am willing to bet few conservatives will stand against ignorance.
Many of our politicians have lived in fear of the NRA. For example, the Colorado legislature a while ago passed gun safety measures. The NRA went to work and got recall elections against some of the supporters of the legislation. Stories like that scare politicians about the consequences of opposing the NRA. Even if the power of the NRA is waning because of its internal problems, many politicians pledge fealty to the Second Amendment and are concerned that they could lose in a primary to someone who is even more opposed to gun safety.
The fear of that power needs to be broken if we are ever to advance towards sensible gun measures. Here’s my suggestion: Gun safety organizations should identify five or six legislative districts in each state that might be swing districts where the incumbent unthinkingly follows the NRA line. Time, money, and effort should be concentrated by the reformers on these relatively small number of elections. Gun safety advocates would not have to win all these elections to have an impact. If thirty or forty state legislative incumbents around the country lost their positions at least partly because they were allied with the NRA, the NRA would start to look less invincible. Only when legislators begin to think that they could lose their seats because of their opposition to gun safety measures supported by most American will the NRA’s hold on this country start to weaken.
Mass shootings are (generally mistakenly) seen as an opportunity for gun safety reform, but there are other possibilities. As I have been working on this post, a man was arrested near the home of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. He was exercising what many would see as his Second Amendment right to carry a pistol, but when he saw federal marshals outside the Justice’s house, he called a Maryland county emergency number and said that he was having suicidal thoughts, planned to kill a Justice, and had a firearm in his suitcase. While he was still on the phone, the police arrived and arrested him.
This is, of course, akin to a red flag situation and highlights the need for such laws.
Republican Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said about the incident: “I call on leaders in both parties in Washington to strongly condemn these actions. It is vital to our constitutional system that the justices be able to carry out their duties without fear of violence against them and their families.”
Of course, but it also should be vital to our society that schoolchildren, worshippers, shoppers, subway riders–all of us–be able to go about our lives without fear of violence against ourselves or our families. Condemning such potential violence is easy. Taking steps to try to prevent more of it seems to be beyond the ability of our elected representatives.