• Jenny Crum & Mariah Norman

How Red Flags Laws Save Lives

In a nation where guns outnumber people, common sense reform remains a pipe dream. But as shootings rise, the time to pass red flag laws is now.

The gun show loophole has given millions of Americans access to assault weapons (Wittman/NYT).

When tragedies such as suicides occur, many ask one question: why. Why did an individual feel compelled to take their own lives, and given the answer to that question, what can we do to prevent them from happening in the future?

Data collected by the CDC states that nearly 50,000 people committed suicide in 2018, with suicide being the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. These staggering numbers have pressed some politicians, researchers, and public health professionals to analyze the correlation between access to guns and gun violence. According to the Means Matter Campaign, a project completed by the Harvard School of Public Health, addressing “how” people are committing suicide is equally important to addressing “why”.

Gun violence is the leading cause of suicide. Of the 48,344 individuals who died by suicide in 2018, 24,432 used a firearm as their method.

A study referenced in the Means Matter campaign highlights that “…suicidal impulses are often brief, [and] that availability of a method may influence both the occurrence and outcome of a suicidal act,” continuing by concluding that, “if a favored means becomes less available it does not always result in substitution by another method .” Whereas methods such as overdosing and cutting are more able to be either aborted or reversed, firearm suicides are usually fatal, and being such they are disproportionately used as a method of taking one's life.

This all proves what the Harvard School of Public Health campaign asserts: means matter.

According to a statement from the Biden White House Administration released on April 7, these means matter enough to declare gun violence as a public health epidemic in the US, stating, “The President is committed to taking action to reduce all forms of gun violence – community violence, mass shootings, domestic violence, and suicide by firearm.”

Following this year’s most recent high-profile mass shootings in Atlanta, GA and Boulder, CO—as well as the frequent homicides disproportionately affecting Black and brown Americans in urban areas—public calls on Congress to pass comprehensive gun control legislation have flared up yet again. In March, two gun control bills primarily focused on closing problematic loopholes in the gun background check system were passed in the House through a bipartisan coalition. Though with a barely blue Senate and the chamber’s 60 vote requirement to end filibustering, Democrats would need the support of at least 10 Republican senators to successfully pass these proposed policy changes. Unsurprisingly, the Senate is stalled.

However, the Biden administration has announced six initial actions they plan to take now through executive actions and federal agencies. In one, the Department of Justice is tasked with publishing a model for “red flag” laws by June 6. According to the press release, “Red flag laws allow family members or law enforcement to petition for a court order temporarily barring people in crisis from accessing firearms if they present a danger to themselves or others.” The publishing of this model serves to re-ignite support and encourage states to adopt these laws now, without being forced to wait for legislation to be passed in Congress.

But red flag laws are nothing we haven’t seen before. Following the Parkland Shooting in 2018, President Trump, Republicans, and Democrats alike supported the push for red flag laws. Quickly after legislation was proposed, though, the National Rifle Association (a well-known gun rights advocacy group) asserted that red flag laws were a violation of the Second Amendment, and Republican support for red flag laws rapidly declined.

It’s time to finally call the NRA out and confront the truth. The immediate passing and implementation of red flag laws across the country would be a crucial step in addressing not only America’s gun violence epidemic but growing mental health crisis, as well.

So how exactly do red flag laws work? Extreme Risk laws allow immediate family members, household members, and/or law enforcement (eligible petitioners vary by state; others include mental health professionals, co-workers, or state attorneys) to petition their local state court for an extreme risk protection order (ERPO). These are filed when a petitioner finds evidence that an individual is likely to pose a threat to themselves or others if they have access to lethal weapons. After following due process, the order can be issued ex parte (without notice to the individual) relatively quickly. Next, a court hearing for a final, more permanent order will take place where the individual is offered a chance to contest the order. Finally, if the order is successfully issued, the person with an ERPO will be prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms of any kind during the duration of the order. Depending on the state, extreme risk protection orders can last from around six months to a year. It is also important that states provide a clear path to renewal of orders, in order to accommodate the extended time healing from mental health issues typically takes, which the order would need to be in effect for the full duration of.

The current implementation of red flag laws in 19 states across the country has massively decreased the accessibility of firearms for mentally ill people at risk of harming themselves or others, saving countless lives by eliminating the means to act upon violent and suicidal impulses. Since the tragic Parkland Shooting in 2018, red flag laws have been utilized in Florida over 3,500 times and are steadily increasing in usage. These orders allow the government to step in where they once lacked the jurisdiction to confiscate firearms from individuals making threats or showing evidence of severe mental breaks that did not have previous felony convictions or been adjudicated as mentally ill.

According to compiled research from the leading gun reform advocacy group Everytown, “Following Connecticut’s increased enforcement of its Extreme Risk law, one study found the law to be associated with a 14 percent reduction in the state’s firearm suicide rate.” Additionally, they discovered a tangible correlation that, “one suicide was averted for approximately every 11 gun removals carried out under the law.” Additionally, 10 years after Indiana passed its red flag law, “...the state’s firearm suicide rate decreased by 7.5 percent. Like Connecticut, another study estimated that Indiana’s Extreme Risk law averted one suicide for approximately every 10 gun removals.”

This issue is only becoming more pressing, as it is estimated by Everytown that “...the economic fallout from the pandemic could result in a 20 to 30 percent increase in firearm suicides.” We have the ability to be proactive on this debilitating crisis by pushing for effective legislation, such as red flag laws, now.

The Indianapolis FedEx Shooting followed three other 2021 mass shootings in that very same neighborhood (AJ/NYT).

Nonetheless, red flag laws are far from perfect. They could be manipulated to put people at risk of domestic abuse further in danger. For example, if a person feels that they need a firearm for protection from their abuser (whether a family member or a significant other), but the abuser files an ERPO against them using manipulated evidence, then the protection against their abuser is lost. However, many states have significant penalties for presenting false evidence, such as in any other trial. Another potential issue is that in all states that have red flag laws, ERPO orders can be issued ex parte. While this technicality reasonably considers that most of the people ERPOs are filed against are mentally ill or suicidal, it could also exacerbate ERPOs filed with ill will by targeting victims of abuse without their knowledge. Yet even when a final ERPO is issued, respondents are still able to petition to terminate the ERPO before the agreed upon date, if they can provide evidence of improvement. Finally, because the hearings aren’t criminal proceedings, pro bono lawyers are not offered, meaning that people who are impoverished would be put at a disadvantage due to their lack of income.

Most importantly, if ERPOs aren’t filed when they’re needed, people die.

On April 15, 2021, an active shooter killed nine people at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, Indiana. According to Chief Randal Taylor, the Indianapolis Chief of Police, the gunman’s mother asked the police to seize one of his handguns in March 2020, but “despite his mother’s warning and the police seizure of a gun, the authorities had not deemed him subject to Indiana’s so-called red flag law, which bars people from possessing a firearm if they are found by a judge to present a dangerous risk.” If the police had filed an ERPO that restricted this mentally unstable man from buying, obtaining, or using a weapon, the tragedy that occured in Indianapolis this month could possibly have been avoided.

The widespread adoption of red flag laws will not happen overnight in our current political minefield, but the Biden administration’s prioritization of this initiative is a step in the right direction. As citizens, it is our duty to hold our government to their mandate to protect the American people. Whether it’s against the public health epidemic of gun violence or suicide, red flag laws are one of many multi-faceted, provenly effective policy directives that could save thousands.

The Senate's filibuster is likely to remain in place making gun reform extremely unlikely without executive action (Hill).

In fact, in the time since this piece has been written, we have been forced to make edits three separate times in order to provide the most recent information on increasingly occurring high-profile gun violence. In addition to the tragedy at the FedEx facility in Indianapolis, three more people were killed at a bar in Wisconsin, three people in Texas were killed in a moment of domestic violence, and one person was killed with five wounded in Ohio—while attending the vigil of another gun violence victim. If warning signs were displayed and an extreme risk protection order had been issued on any of these individuals, they would’ve never had access to the firearm that took the lives of innocent Americans.

There have been at least fifty mass shootings in the United States since the fatal attacks on the Atlanta spa on March 16th. And on average, 130 people continue to commit suicide everyday. We don’t have time to waste. Congress must act now.

Jenny Crum is a senior at Cartersville High School in Bartow County, Georgia. She writes about history, art, and community.

Mariah Norman is a freshman at Harvard University studying Government and Politics originally from Mason, Ohio. She writes about race, policing, and Congress.

This piece was edited by Anna Xu, a sophomore at Yale University studying computer science.

Cover: NYT


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