March 25, 2019

When a person is in crisis and considering harming themselves or others, family members and law enforcement are often the first people to see the warning signs. Red Flag laws empower those who recognize these warning signs to intervene in order to prevent people in crisis from accessing firearms. These laws can help de-escalate emergency situations and are a proven way to intervene before a firearm suicide or mass shooting takes more American lives. States around the country are turning to Red Flag laws as a common-sense way to help reduce gun violence.

 

INTRODUCTION

Red Flag laws can save lives by creating a way for family members and law enforcement to act before warning signs escalate into tragedies. These laws permit immediate family members and law enforcement to petition a court for an order, commonly known as an extreme risk protection order (ERPO),These orders are sometimes also known as gun violence restraining orders (GVROs). to remove guns from dangerous situations. If a court finds that a person poses a serious risk of injuring themselves or others with a firearm, that person is temporarily prohibited from purchasing and possessing guns and is required to turn over their guns while the order is in effect.

 

Fourteen states and DC have enacted Red Flag laws.Cal. Penal Code § 18125; Cal. Penal Code § 18150; Cal. Penal Code § 18175; Conn. Gen. Stat. § 29-38c; 10 Del. C. 7701, et seq.; 2018 D.C. Act 22-629; Fla. Stat. § 790.401; 430 ILCS 67/1, et seq.; Ind. Code § 35-47-14-1; Ind. Code § 35-47-14-2; Ind. Code § 35-47-14-5; Ind. Code § 35-47-14-6; Ind. Code § 35-47-14-8; Md Public Safety Code 5-601, et seq; Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 121; Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 129B(C); Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, § 131(C); Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 140, §131R-Z; 2019 NY SB 2451; 2018 NJ A 1217; ORS 166.525, et seq.; 13 VSA 4051, et seq.; RI Gen Laws 8-8.3-1, et seq.; Wash. Rev. Code § 7.94.030; Wash. Rev. Code § 7.94.040; Wash. Rev. Code § 7.94.050; Wash. Rev. Code § 7.94.080. California, Connecticut, Delaware, DC, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

Under current federal law, a person is barred from having guns only if they fall into one of several categories of prohibited persons – such as those who have been convicted of certain crimes, adjudicated as mentally ill or involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital, or who are subject to a final domestic violence restraining order.18 U.S.C. § 922(d), (g). A person who displays warning signs that they’re considering suicide or other acts of violence, but who does not fall into any of the above categories or is otherwise not prohibited under current law, would still be able to legally buy and possess guns. Red Flag laws help to fill this gap and allow people in crisis the chance to seek the help they need.

 

KEY FINDINGS

Red Flag laws have been shown to reduce the risk of firearm suicide by temporarily removing guns from dangerous situations.

Firearm suicide is a significant public health crisis in the US.For more information on firearm suicide, see: https://everytownresearch.org/reports/disrupting-access/. Every year, over 22,000 Americans die by firearm suicide, including over 1,000 children and teens.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) Fatal Injury Reports. A yearly average was developed using five years of most recent available data: 2013 to 2017. Children and teens are defined as ages 0 to 19. Nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths in the US are suicides, an average of 61 deaths a day.Ibid. Firearm suicide to total suicide ratio and daily average developed using five years of most recent available data: 2013 to 2017.

A meta-analysis of 14 scientific studies revealed that having access to a firearm triples one’s risk of death by suicide. This elevated risk applies not only to the gun owner but also to everyone in the household.Anglemyer A, Horvath T, Rutherford G. The accessibility of firearms and risk for suicide and homicide victimization among household members: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2014; 160: 101–110.

Among commonly used methods of self-harm, firearms are by far the most lethal, with a fatality rate of approximately 85 percent.Miller M, Azrael D, Barber C. Suicide mortality in the United States: the importance of attending to method in understanding population-level disparities in the burden of suicide. Annual Review of Public Health. 2012; 33: 393-408. Conversely, less than 5 percent of people who attempt suicide using other methods will die,Ibid. and the vast majority of all those who survive do not go on to die by suicide.Owens D, Horrocks J, House A. Fatal and non-fatal repetition of self-harm: systematic review. British Journal of Psychiatry. 2002; 181: 193-199. While firearms are used in less than 6 percent of suicide attempts, over half of suicide deaths are with firearms.Miller M, Azrael D, Barber C. Suicide mortality in the United States: the importance of attending to method in understanding population-level disparities in the burden of suicide. Annual Review of Public Health. 2012; 33: 393-408.

Following Connecticut’s increased enforcement of its Red Flag law,Conn. Gen. Stat. § 29-38c. one study found the law to be associated with a 14 percent reduction in the state’s firearm suicide rate.Kivisto AJ, Phalen PL. Effects of risk-based firearm seizure laws in Connecticut and Indiana on suicide rates, 1981-2015. Psychiatric Services. 2018; 69(8): 855-862. Another study in Connecticut found that one suicide was averted for approximately every 11 gun removals carried out under the law.Swanson JW, Norko M, Lin H, et al. Implementation and effectiveness of Connecticut’s risk-based gun removal law: Does it prevent suicides? Law and Contemporary Problems. 2017; 80: 179-208.

In Indiana, in the 10 years after the state passed its Red Flag law in 2005,Ind. Code § 35-47-14-1, et seq. the state’s firearm suicide rate decreased by 7.5 percent.Kivisto AJ, Phalen PL. Effects of risk-based firearm seizure laws in Connecticut and Indiana on suicide rates, 1981-2015. Psychiatric Services. 2018; 69(8): 855-862.

Perpetrators of mass shootings and school shootings often display warning signs before committing violent acts. Interventions in states with Red Flag laws have already prevented these potential strategies.

An Everytown original analysis of mass shootings from 2009 to 2017 revealed that in 51 percent of incidents the shooter exhibited warning signs that they posed a risk to themselves or others before the shooting.Everytown for Gun Safety. Mass Shootings in the United States: 2009-2017. https://every.tw/1XVAmcc. December 2018.  These warning signs are even more apparent among perpetrators of school violence.Everytown for Gun Safety. Keeping Our Schools Safe: A Plan to Stop Mass Shootings and End Gun Violence in American Schools. everytownresearch.org/reports/keeping-schools-safe. February 2019. The United States Secret Service and the United States Department of Education studied targeted school violence incidents and found behavioral warning signs that caused others to be concerned in 93 percent of cases. They also found that in 81 percent of incidents, other people, most often the shooter’s peers, had some type of knowledge about the shooter’s plans.United States Secret Service and United States Department of Education. Prior knowledge of potential school-based violence: information students learn may prevent a targeted attack. https://bit.ly/2MPrOoL. May 2008.

For example, students and teachers reported that the mass shooter in the February 2018 Parkland, FL, tragedy displayed threatening behavior. His mother had contacted law enforcement on multiple occasions regarding his behavior, and he was known to possess firearms.Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission. Initial report submitted to the Governor, Speaker of the House of Representatives and Senate President. http://www.fdle.state.fl.us/MSDHS/CommissionReport.pdf. January 2, 2019. In response to that tragedy, Florida passed its own Red Flag law.Fla. Stat. § 790.401.

Likewise, the shooter in the May 2014 Isla Vista, CA shooting displayed numerous warning signs, including homicidal and suicidal threats. His parents had alerted law enforcement, but he did not meet the criteria for emergency mental health commitment.Pickert K. Mental-health lessons emerge from Isla Vista slayings. Time. May 27, 2014. https://goo.gl/UL5jLX. As a result, he kept his guns, which he used in the killing spree three weeks later. In response to that tragic shooting, California passed its own Red Flag law.Cal. Penal Code § 18125; Cal. Penal Code § 18150; Cal. Penal Code § 18175.

In 51% of mass shootings, the shooter exhibited dangerous warning signs before the shooting.

In Maryland, a 2018 Red Flag law has been invoked in at least four cases involving “significant threats” against schools, according to the leaders of the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association.Broadwater L. Sheriff: Maryland's 'red flag' law prompted gun seizures after four 'significant threats' against schools. The Baltimore Sun. January 15, 2019. https://bit.ly/2Gdf6Qi.

In Florida, a Red Flag law passed in 2018 has been invoked in multiple cases of potential school violence, including in the case of a student who was accused of stalking an ex-girlfriend and threatening to kill himself,Kennedy E. Tate student's AR-15, father's 54 guns removed under new red flag law. Pensacola News Journal. July 9, 2018. https://bit.ly/2UHmaba. and in another in which a potential school shooter said killing people would be “addicting.”Lipscomb J. Florida's post-Parkland "Red Flag" law has taken guns from dozens of dangerous people. Miami New Times. August 7, 2018. https://bit.ly/2ORW56U.

In Seattle, a coalition of city and county officialsThe coalition included the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, Seattle Police Department, King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, and King County Sheriff’s Office. launched a regional firearms enforcement unit that supports, tracks, and enforces all firearm surrender orders issued within the county. In the unit’s first year, it recovered 200 firearms as a result of 48 ERPOs. According to the City Attorney’s Office, the use of ERPOs has been effective in temporarily preventing access to firearms by students who threatened violence against themselves, the school, and other students.12-month period from January 2018 to December 2018. Acquired via correspondence with Christopher Anderson, director of the Domestic Violence Unit of the Seattle City Attorney’s Office.

Red Flag laws have robust due-process protections. Those who request an ERPO must present evidence to a judge that demonstrates a person poses a significant danger of injuring themselves or others with a firearm. A judge can issue an emergency ERPO before a full hearing is held, but only upon clear evidence of immediate danger; this order typically lasts only 14 to 21 days. The final ERPO, generally lasting up to one year, can be issued only following a hearing of which the person is given notice and during which they have an opportunity to be heard and respond to evidence. Many of these laws also include strong provisions that deter people from misusing the ERPO process.

 

CONCLUSION

The emerging body of research concurs that Red Flag laws work to prevent firearm suicide, and they can also help prevent would-be mass shooters from committing violence. An overwhelming majority of Americans on both sides of the aisle support Red Flag laws. In a recent survey, 89 percent of likely voters favored Congress passing a Red Flag law.

 

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24/7. 1-800-273-TALK (8255) suicidepreventionlifeline.org

You may also contact the Crisis Text Line, which provides trained crisis counseling services over text 24/7. Text HOME to 741741 for free from anywhere in the U.S. crisistextline.org

 

APPENDIX: RED FLAG STORIES

Click here to download the appendix of stories that illustrate the importance of Red Flag legislation in removing firearms from dangerous situations.