Can 'red flag' laws help prevent mass shootings? 21 cases suggest the answer is yes

Crime scene tape in a building with blurred forensic team in background
A new study suggests 'red flag' laws can help prevent mass shootings. (Getty/Prathaan)

Recent mass shootings have raised the question of whether so-called “red flag” laws, which allow firearms to be temporarily seized from people who are deemed a threat, are part of the answer to stopping the tragedies.

Experts who examined 21 California cases in which extreme risk protection orders were used in response to threats of mass violence suggest they can play a role in preventing mass shootings. The findings were published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

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The study was released as supporters of stricter gun control laws held rallies in all 50 states over the weekend to pressure Congress to take action in the wake of mass shootings that have rocked the country. Gun control groups want the Republican-led Senate to pass universal background checks, as well as a national red flag law to take guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous individuals.

Red flag laws, enacted in 15 states and the District of Columbia, allow families and law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily remove firearms from individuals at imminent risk of using them to harm themselves or others.

While studies suggest the interventions are effective at preventing suicide, it’s an unknown whether they work to prevent mass shootings. Researchers from the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis School of Medicine wanted to find out by evaluating the effectiveness of the country’s first extreme risk protection order law, enacted in California, which took effect in January 2016.

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Of 414 cases that occurred from 2016 to 2018, the study authors received 159 court cases for people subject to the orders and developed an aggregate history and individual histories for a preliminary series of 21 cases, all of them published with the report. They focused on the 21 cases in which a judicial officer issued a gun violence restraining order after the individual threatened to commit a mass shooting or exhibited threatening behavior and where the person had or would soon have access to firearms.

The researchers conducted print, broadcast and Internet media Google searches using the subjects’ names and locations to determine if they were the perpetrators of any violent events from the date of the order. Fifty-two firearms were taken from individuals (26 of them in one case) and as of early August, none of the threatened shootings had occurred and researchers found no evidence they had committed other homicides or suicides.

“It is impossible to know whether violence would have occurred had ERPOs not been issued,” the authors wrote. “Nonetheless, the cases suggest that this urgent, individualized intervention can play a role in efforts to prevent mass shootings, in healthcare settings and elsewhere.” Further research would be helpful in determining definitively the effectiveness of such orders, they said.

What the 21 cases revealed

Their research showed that most of the subjects of the red flag orders were non-Hispanic white males, with a mean age of 35, though they ranged in age from 14 to 65. Four cases arose primarily in relation to medical or mental health conditions, and such conditions were noted in four others. The cases involved workplace threats, school threats or those targeting children, as well as cases with political, social or domestic motivations.

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In three cases the researchers studied, the individuals had very recently purchased firearms but, as a result of California’s 10-day waiting period, had not yet acquired them. Because of the court order, the individuals were blocked from getting a gun.

Use of emergency orders to stop mass violence

According to the study, nearly 80% of perpetrators of mass violence in public places make explicit threats or behave in a manner “indicative of their intent to carry out an attack.” For example, the shooters in the Parkland, Florida; Aurora, Colorado; and Tucson, Arizona events, among others, were known by family members, acquaintances, law enforcement, and in some cases, healthcare professionals, to be at high risk for violence.

The researchers noted that lawmakers often enact red flag laws following public mass shootings. But they said they were aware of only two reported cases of the use of emergency orders to prevent mass shootings.

One case was in Vermont, where an 18-year-old man described the Parkland school shooting as “fantastic” the day after it occurred, made concrete threats (even to the police), wrote plans to commit a mass shooting at his school (“I’m aiming to kill as many as I can”), and owned firearms. Vermont’s first court order was issued against this man in April 2018, the day after the governor signed the bill into law.

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In a second case, in December 2018, an emergency order was obtained for a Washington man accused of threatening a mass shooting at a synagogue (“I’m shooting for 30 Jews”) and a school. Authorities recovered 12 firearms.

In the face of back-to-back mass shootings earlier this month, there appears to be growing support for red flag laws.

President Donald Trump has expressed interest in pushing for legislative action to expand background checks and preventing mentally unstable people from possessing guns, although he has not thrown specific support behind any measures being discussed in Congress. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has introduced red-flag legislation to temporarily block dangerous people from accessing firearms.

Enactment of extreme risk protection order laws was one of the ideas endorsed by seven leading medical organizations in a call for action to prevent gun-related injuries and deaths. That included the American College of Physicians, which published the Annals study.

A report released earlier this month by the Medical Director Institute of the National Council for Behavioral Health also recommended enacting state extreme risk protection orders among its solutions to mass violence.