A protest in California over gun violence and the epidemic of mass shootings in schools today.

What are ‘Red Flag’ Laws And How Can They Prevent Gun Violence?

The United States experiences a tense relationship between public safety and gun ownership, as it surpasses all other countries in the amount of firearms its residents possess. Approximately 433.9 million guns exist in the United States, according to data from the ATF, but this does not account for guns that have left circulation. Of those, only 7,512,175 are registered. In the past few decades, mass shooting events have highlighted that persons in distress, with access to such weaponry, pose a danger to both themselves and others. Accordingly, many states have taken steps to preemptively remove firearms from such persons — these policies are called "Red Flag Laws."

Map of States With Red Flag Laws

A map of the United States depicting which states have a red flag law.
A map of the United States depicting which states have a red flag law.

What is A Red Flag Law?

Red flag laws, also known as Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs), are state laws that permit specific individuals to petition a court to temporarily remove firearms from someone believed to pose a significant risk to themselves or others. These laws aim to prevent potential gun-related tragedies, including mass shootings and suicides.

The primary objective of red flag laws is to identify and act upon warning signs before a violent act takes place. They fill a crucial gap in the legal system by allowing for proactive measures based on evidence of risk rather than waiting for a crime to occur or relying solely on mental health diagnoses. Many tragic incidents involve clear signals or threats beforehand, making these laws a vital preventive tool.

The legislation is intricate, with each state having its criteria for what constitutes a 'red flag.' Typically, the process involves presenting evidence before a judge, who then decides if an order is warranted. If granted, the individual in question must surrender their firearms for a specified period. During this time, they cannot purchase or possess any guns.

Who can petition for such an order varies by state. Common petitioners include law enforcement agencies, as they often encounter situations suggesting an individual may pose a risk. Additionally, family members and household members, recognizing worrisome behaviors or threats firsthand, frequently have the right to petition. In several states, this circle extends to medical professionals, educators, and even colleagues who might notice alarming signs in day-to-day interactions. Some jurisdictions also allow roommates, employers, people with a child in common, or those in a dating relationship to file a petition. Last, certain states have included gun licensing authorities, district attorneys, and school administrators in this list.

Are Red Flag Laws Controversial?

New Hampshire Gun Rights Rally at the Capital House in Concord, NH
New Hampshire Gun Rights Rally at the Capital House in Concord, NH

The debate surrounding red flag laws centers on a balance between public safety and individual rights. Proponents argue that these laws are essential tools for preventing gun violence, especially in cases where an individual demonstrates clear signs of being a threat to themselves or others. They posit that with a structured legal process, red flag laws can temporarily remove firearms from potentially dangerous individuals, reducing the likelihood of tragic events.

Opponents, on the other hand, contend that red flag laws infringe upon Second Amendment rights and can be used maliciously to disarm innocent individuals without proper due process. Their primary concern is the potential for these laws to be abused, leading to unwarranted confiscation of firearms based on mere accusations or misunderstandings.

Oklahoma stands out in this debate, having enacted the nation's first anti-red flag law. The Anti-Red Flag Act, as it's known, not only prohibits the state and its subdivisions from implementing red flag laws but also bars them from accepting any funding aimed at enacting such laws. Supporters of this anti-red flag law, like Sen. Nathan Dahm and State Rep. Jay Steagall, emphasize the need to safeguard constitutional rights, particularly the Second Amendment. They argue that red flag laws bypass essential legal protections, leading to potential abuses.

The History of Red Flag Laws

Police investigate the scene where shots were fired on Manhattan's Upper Westside
Police investigate the scene where shots were fired on Manhattan's Upper Westside.

Connecticut was the pioneer, enacting the first red flag law in 1999 following a tragic shooting at the Connecticut Lottery. The early 2000s saw Indiana follow suit, introducing Jake Laird's Law in 2005 after an Indianapolis officer was killed by a mentally disturbed individual. The progression was slow initially, with only California, Washington, and Oregon enacting similar laws between 2014 and 2017.

The Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2018 marked a watershed moment for red flag legislation. The horror of that day spurred a significant number of states to take action. In the immediate aftermath, states such as Florida, Vermont, Maryland, and Rhode Island, among others, established their own versions of red flag laws.

As momentum built, 2019 saw New York adopt a unique approach by allowing educators to petition for ERPOs, recognizing the critical role schools play in identifying potential threats. This was a year of rapid adoption, with Colorado, Nevada, and Hawaii also passing red flag laws. By 2020, Virginia, despite initial resistance, and New Mexico had also joined the ranks.

Interestingly, while many states were quick to embrace these laws, some counties within these states resisted. Colorado became a focal point of this debate, with certain counties declaring themselves "sanctuaries" from such laws. However, the tragic shooting in Colorado Springs in 2022 underscored the urgency and relevance of these protective measures, leading to a reevaluation by many of these counties.

By May 2023, Minnesota and Michigan had also recognized the importance of these laws, becoming the 20th and 21st states, respectively, to enact them.

However, the recent 2023 incident in Lewiston, Maine, serves as a sobering reminder that there is still much work to be done. With U.S. Rep. Jared Golden's apology and the absence of a red flag law in Maine, it is evident that the journey to national consensus and adoption remains ongoing.

Maine's Yellow Flag Law Exception

The Maine State House in Augusta, Maine, USA.
The Maine State House in Augusta, Maine, USA.

Maine's unique "yellow flag law," distinct from the more common red flag laws in other states, requires a more comprehensive process for addressing concerns about potentially dangerous gun owners. Under this law, if someone, be it a close relative or a police officer, suspects a gun owner is an imminent threat, they report to the police. Local law enforcement then takes the individual into protective custody and mandates a mental health evaluation by a medical expert. Based on the findings, law enforcement may apply for a court order to temporarily remove the individual's guns and suspend their gun license.

Implemented in 2020, the law aims to provide judges with more precise information before making decisions on gun ownership. This contrasts with Massachusetts' red flag law, which allows relatives or roommates to directly apply for an emergency court order to remove guns from a suspected violent threat.

Since its enactment, Maine's yellow flag law has been used 82 times, a statistic that legislators cite as evidence of its effectiveness. However, some gun control advocates argue that Maine's approach, being the only one of its kind in the U.S., places excessive burdens and is less effective in quickly disarming dangerous individuals compared to red flag laws. The 2023 tragedy in Lewiston, Maine, where local law enforcement did not utilize the yellow flag law despite several warnings, highlights the law's limitations and potential for improvement. Shortly after the incident, local mental health advocates publically stated on radio broadcast that a lack of awareness about the law has been a recurring issue for law enforcement.

The Takeaway

Despite the evident benefits that red flag laws might offer in preventing gun violence, not all states have adopted them due to the intense polarization of gun rights in the U.S. Some view them as an obvious solution to a pressing problem, while others see them as an overreach and potential threat to civil liberties. The Oklahoma example highlights the depth of this divide, with some states moving to strengthen gun rights even as others look to impose more restrictions.

Which States Have a Red Flag Law?

State Red Flag Law? Who may petition for an order?
Alabama No
Alaska No
Arizona No
Arkansas No
California Yes Law enforcement, immediate family members, employers, coworkers, teachers, roommates, people with a child in common or who have a dating relationship
Colorado Yes Law enforcement, family/household members, certain medical professionals, and certain educators
Connecticut Yes Law enforcement, family/household members, and medical professionals
Delaware Yes Law enforcement and family members
Florida Yes Law enforcement only
Georgia No
Hawaii Yes Law enforcement, family/household members, medical professionals, educators, and colleagues
Idaho No
Illinois Yes Law enforcement and family members
Indiana Yes Law enforcement only
Iowa No
Kansas No
Kentucky No
Louisiana No
Maine Partial Law enforcement evaluates and possibly disarms potentially dangerous gun owners.
Maryland Yes Law enforcement, family members, doctors, and mental health professionals
Massachusetts Yes Family/household members and gun licensing authorities
Michigan Yes Law enforcement, family/household members, certain health care providers
Minnesota Yes Law enforcement and family members
Mississippi No
Missouri No
Montana No
Nebraska No
Nevada Yes Law enforcement and family/household members
New Hampshire No
New Jersey Yes Law enforcement and family/household members
New Mexico Yes Law enforcement only
New York Yes Law enforcement, district attorneys, family/household members, school administrators, certain medical professionals
North Carolina No
North Dakota No
Ohio No
Oklahoma No
Oregon Yes Law enforcement and family/household members
Pennsylvania No
Rhode Island Yes Law enforcement only
South Carolina No
South Dakota No
Tennessee No
Texas No
Utah No
Vermont Yes States attorneys and the Office of the Attorney General; family/household members
Virginia Yes Law enforcement and Commonwealth Attorneys
Washington Yes Law enforcement and family/household members
West Virginia No
Wisconsin No
Wyoming No

States Ranked By Total Number of Registered Weapons

State Number of Registered Weapons
Texas 1,006,555
Florida 518,725
Virginia 423,707
California 406,360
Pennsylvania 348,167
Georgia 304,124
Arizona 258,691
North Carolina 222,166
Ohio 208,661
Alabama 194,920
Washington 165,534
Indiana 157,546
Louisiana 152,061
Tennessee 151,536
Colorado 149,382
Illinois 144,749
Wyoming 142,247
Maryland 136,257
Arkansas 133,981
Minnesota 129,825
New Mexico 122,968
South Carolina 119,205
Nevada 119,007
Utah 118,408
Missouri 113,351
Michigan 109,835
Kentucky 108,833
Oklahoma 103,368
New Jersey 102,228
Oregon 97,474
Wisconsin 95,430
New York 92,191
Mississippi 80,712
Idaho 76,425
Connecticut 74,874
District of Columbia 74,315
New Hampshire 72,433
Kansas 69,850
South Dakota 64,666
Iowa 54,178
West Virginia 50,963
Massachusetts 45,138
Nebraska 43,261
Montana 36,678
North Dakota 30,975
Alaska 28,237
Maine 21,396
Vermont 9,451
Hawaii 9,280
Delaware 6,092
Rhode Island 4,887
U.S. Territories 872

Source: statista.com


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