What are red-flag gun laws?

Red-flag gun laws allow courts to issue orders to confiscate guns from individuals deemed to be dangerous to themselves and others

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
Thursday 08 April 2021 21:47 BST
Related video: Joe Biden condemns ‘international embarrassment’ of gun violence in US

After recent mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado, the Biden administration is moving swiftly to enact gun reform on the executive level, as many Democrats conclude that any major cooperation with Republicans is unlikely.

But some Democrats hope to find a compromise across the aisle on a national ‘red-flag’ gun law. The White House announced on Wednesday that Congress should “pass an appropriate national ‘red-flag’ law, as well as legislation incentivising states to pass ‘red-flag’ laws of their own”.

Here’s what you need to know about those laws.

What are red-flag gun laws?

Red-flag gun laws give courts the authority to issue an order that a weapon should be temporarily confiscated from an individual who’s deemed to be dangerous. A judge decides if an individual in possession of a weapon might be a danger to themselves or others.

Requests for protection orders and confiscation can come from friends or relatives who are concerned about someone who has a weapon and has given indications that they may have suicidal tendencies or are thinking about hurting others. Law enforcement can also request an order.

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The period for which weapons are taken away is decided on a case-by-case basis and depends on the circumstances of each protection order. Usually, the orders can only be extended after a court hearing is held. These orders also prohibit the person in question from buying new guns. Specifics of the laws can vary from state to state.

How many states already have a law like this?

As of April 2020, 19 states and Washington, DC had some kind of red flag law, according to the Giffords Law Center.

Only five states had red flag gun laws before the 2018 mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, The New York Times reported.

Do red flag gun laws work?

It’s difficult to say how effective these laws are, as it’s hard to put a number on how many shootings and deaths have been prevented.

Officials across the country have seen an uptick in reports after a mass shooting is covered heavily in the news.

Guns have most often been removed from people who have not been seen as potential mass shooters but from people who are seen as a possible danger to themselves or to their families. Guns have also been taken from those with impairments to their judgement, such as those suffering from alcoholism or dementia.

The most common way Americans are killed by guns is by suicide. Research suggests that red-flag laws have reduced the number of suicides. Studies in Indiana and Connecticut found that for every 10 to 20 confiscations, there was one fewer death than was initially expected.

Researchers also found that those who had confiscation orders taken out against them were 30 times more likely than average to die by suicide.

Professor of psychiatry at Duke University Jeffrey Swanson told The New York Times: “It shows the law is being applied not willy-nilly, but to a group that is really at a high risk of dying.”

Who are against red flag gun laws, and why?

Some conservatives do not believe they work and are against gun control of any kind, arguing that it violates the second amendment to the constitution.

The National Rifle Association has said that laws that allow guns to be confiscated from people who have yet to commit a crime go too far.

The NRA has also argued that some red-flag laws deny the targets of protection orders due process by allowing that orders be issued before the targets of those orders have been heard in court.

Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene was heavily criticised after videos surfaced of her following Parkland survivor and gun control advocate David Hogg around, telling him that red-flag laws don’t work as he was trying to lobby members of Congress to enact new gun-control measures.

What’s the origin of red-flag gun laws?

Connecticut was the first state to enact a law of this kind in 1999 after an accountant fatally stabbed and shot four of his supervisors before turning the gun on himself. He had previously been treated for stress issues and showed indications of emotional instability.

The law was not heavily used at first, but reports started to rise as High School shootings became more prevalent in other states.

But the law isn’t perfect, the gunman who killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December 2012 had shown problematic signs before the mass shooting but still managed to get access to weapons.

Why are people talking about them?

After recent mass shootings in Atlanta, Georgia, and Boulder, Colorado, President Joe Biden has been forced to move on an issue where presidents before him have failed.

He announced a number of executive actions on Thursday meant to address the issue and said gun violence in America was “an epidemic” and “an international embarrassment”.

He also called on Congress to pass a national red-flag gun law and announced that he will direct the Department of Justice to publish an example of a red-flag gun law that states can follow on their own.

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