Jul 10, 2022 - Politics & Policy

What makes "red flag" gun laws work

Illustration of a gun with a "no" symbol for a trigger
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

"Red flag" laws — which allow judges to confiscate guns from people who threaten violence — tend to be toothless unless they have a local champion: A sheriff, district attorney or other authority figure who makes it their business to teach people to use them effectively, experts say.

Why it matters: Coaxing states to implement red flag laws is a centerpiece of the gun bill that President Biden recently signed.

  • Similar laws already on the books in Illinois and New York didn't prevent the recent mass shootings in Highland Park and Buffalo.
  • But research shows that when police officers, educators and community leaders are encouraged to use these laws and trained in their nuances, more court orders are filed that keep firearms away from potentially dangerous people.

Where it stands: 19 states and the District of Columbia have such laws, which enable law enforcement, family members and school officials to petition civil courts to remove firearms from people who show signs of being homicidal or suicidal.

Lessons learned: In the early days of California's law, which took effect in 2016, it "wasn’t being used unless there was a local champion or someone who was in a position of influence who was saying, 'Here is this law, it’s on the books, let’s start using it,'" said Veronica Pear, a professor at the University of California, Davis who published a recent study about the law's efficacy.

  • From 2016 to 2019, at least 58 people who threatened mass shootings had their guns confiscated in California because of gun violence restraining orders, Pear found.
  • San Diego stood out as a success story because its city attorney, Mara Elliott, "repeatedly publicly endorsed" the restraining orders, "encouraged their use as a firearm violence prevention measure, and funded a team devoted to this effort," Pear's research found.

Interagency cooperation is also key. More "red flag" protection orders are typically signed in cities and counties where schools, police departments and mental health agencies are sharing information with one another.

What they're saying: "There’s so much important work that needs to be done in order to really take advantage of the preventive potential of these red flag laws," says Shannon Frattaroli, who directs the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health.

She identified three places where red flag "champions" have made a difference:

  • In Maryland, former Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin "took it upon himself to develop a training protocol and program" for the state's 2018 red flag law, and "went on the road," driving around the state to train officers, Frattaroli said.
  • In King County, Washington, senior prosecutor Kimberly Wyatt leads a unit dedicated to handling "red flag" cases.
  • Broward County, Florida — home to Parkland — "filed a total of 255 petitions and seized more than 400 guns in just the first year" of the state's 2018 red flag law, CNN reports. That's in large part due to the efforts of Sheriff Gregory Tony.
Data: Giffords Law Center; Chart: Axios Visuals

The big picture: Red flag laws are considered a nascent policy tool in the broader field of "behavioral threat assessment" — the practice of evaluating and intervening when people show disturbing signs.

  • Illinois and Connecticut are among the states requiring schools to conduct behavioral threat assessments.
  • But there are no formal standards for implementation, and "nobody really knows how much it's in use," says Mark Follman, author of “Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America.”
  • While decades of research have pointed to best practices in the field, they're not being used enough, Follman said. "There’s still a lot that needs to be done in terms of raising awareness of tools, red flag laws, and then providing the resources, information sharing."

One success story: Los Angeles County, which implemented a behavioral risk assessment program in 2008 in the wake of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech.

  • Since then, "there hasn’t been an instance of targeted school violence in L.A. County" where the program was involved, says Tony Beliz, who spearheaded the effort when he was deputy mental health commissioner.
  • The program — known as the School Threat Assessment Response Team, or START — involves a dedicated field team that visits the homes of at-risk students and works with their parents. At school, some kids are required to report twice a day to a resource officer for "backpack checks."
  • "The benefits of a civilian team are that people feel less threatened by people who aren’t law enforcement," says Beliz, who now teaches at the University of Southern California's Sol Price School of Public Policy.

What's next: The $750 million in the bipartisan gun safety law for red flag laws has "tremendous potential" to improve how they're implemented, Frattaroli said.

  • "It’s a sizable investment," she said. "I’m eager to watch how those grants are awarded and what states and localities do with that money."
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