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What Are 'Red Flag' Laws?

Judge gavel and gun over american flag - studio shot. Filtered image: cross processed vintage effect.
By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

In the wake of three mass shootings in one week that killed 36 and injured another 63, the gun control debate has been revived at the Congressional level. One of the ideas that appear to be gaining bipartisan momentum this time around are so-called red flag laws, aimed at taking guns away from people who may pose a danger to themselves or others.

Currently, 17 states (and the District of Columbia) have some type of red flag law in place. So, what do these laws do, what would a nationwide red flag law look like, and would they help curb gun violence?

Raising Red Flags

In Florida, they're called "Risk Protection Orders"; in Maryland, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington, they're called "Extreme Risk Protection Orders"; and in California, site of the Gilroy Garlic Festival mass shooting in July, they're referred to as "Gun Violence Restraining Orders." In some ways, they all work alike, allowing police or family members to petition a court to order the temporary confiscation of a person's firearms if they present a danger to others or themselves. The person can regain their guns after the order expires, unless the court extends the seizure period.

For instance, in California, only a close family member or a law enforcement officer can ask a judge for a Gun Violence Restraining Order, and there is no cost to file for the order. However, if a person is requesting a restraining order that lasts more than 21 days, they will have to testify in court and tell a judge why they are making the request. If approved, a local Sheriff or Marshall can serve the order on the restrained person and take away any guns, ammunition, and magazines.

It's important to note that, at least in California, a Gun Violence Restraining Order does not order the restrained person to stay away from another person or their family members.

Flagging Mass Shootings

Two studies have shown that implementation of red flag laws in Connecticut and Indiana corresponded with a drop in firearm suicides. However, many state laws are too new to determine whether they have an effect on gun violence against others, or could prevent mass shootings like the ones from last week. (The majority were passed after the Parkland, Florida mass shooting in February 2018.)

"Most often, guns have been removed from people who were seen as threats to themselves or to their families, or who were suffering from judgment-impairing illnesses like dementia or alcoholism," according to The New York Times, "rather than posing a threat to large groups or public gatherings."

A National Red Flag?

A Washington Post/ABC Poll from April 2018 showed that 85 percent of registered voters would support a law "allowing the police to take guns away from people who have been found by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others." And Congress finally looks supportive as well. While a nationwide red flag bill stalled in Congress last year, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democrat Senator Richard Blumenthal are sponsoring legislation that would create a federal grant program to encourage more states to adopt red flag laws.

Thus far though, the bill would not make red flags mandatory, nor would they address the types of weapons that make mass shootings possible.

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