A man in Washington posted on Facebook in June that he wanted to commit a mass shooting at a synagogue and that he was “shooting for 30 Jews.” He previously posted photos of himself with firearms and Nazi salutes.
Law enforcement officers in Washington obtained an emergency risk protection order (ERPO) and removed an AR-15 and 11 other guns from the man’s home. An ERPO is one form of a “red- flag” law.
As radical white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and people with mental health issues gain more attention in America, lawmakers should support a federal red-flag law that removes guns from dangerous people while maintaining due process of the law and preserving fundamental Second Amendment rights.
Red-flag laws differ from state to state. Generally speaking, however, law enforcement, family members, and other individuals have the right to file a petition in court asking for a judge to order a dangerous person to hand over his firearms to law enforcement. As of September 2019, 17 states and the District of Columbia have various forms of red-flag laws.
Although ERPOs have the potential to prevent mass shootings, like the case in Washington, they are most effective for preventing gun suicides and homicides. A 2017 study by the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine found for every 10 to 20 firearm removals under Connecticut’s and Indiana’s extreme risk laws, approximately one life was saved through an averted suicide.
Another study by the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis found at least 21 cases in which ERPOs in California were used to disarm people who threatened mass shootings. At the time of the study, none of the threatened shootings occurred, and no other homicides or suicides by the people in question were identified.
“Our expectation — and this is still true — is that the orders will mostly be used to prevent suicides,” said Dr. Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis told the Ventura County Star. “What we weren’t expecting… was the frequency with which orders arose because the public provided tips about mass shootings.”
Pro-gun groups worry that ERPOs won’t protect the individual’s right to due process. In a statement issued in January of this year, the National Rifle Association said that it supports ERPOs laws in states where due process is protected, and the ERPO process should allow an individual to challenge or terminate the order. The NRA also holds that there needs to be a mechanism in place for the return of firearms upon termination of an ERPO.
“The NRA believes that any effort should be structured to fully protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens while preventing truly dangerous individuals from accessing firearms,” the NRA’s legal team wrote.
Additionally, the NRA laid out very specific requirements for ERPO processes that it could support. One of the requirements directly addresses mental health issues. If an ERPO is granted, the NRA holds that the person should receive community-based mental treatment.
Some gun owners are concerned that left-leaning judges will be more willing to order the removal of an individual’s firearms.
Allison Anderman, the senior counsel at Giffords Law Center — which specializes in researching, writing and defending laws to protect lives from gun violence — said most ERPOs follow the same legal procedures as other types of restraining orders and are consistent with America’s democratic system.
The House Judiciary Committee recently advanced three gun-control bills in its first week back from recess after 38 people died in mass shootings during the month of August.
Democrats in the House Judiciary Committee expect these bills to reach the House floor in the next few weeks. One bill is a federal red-flag law, the other bill would outlaw large-capacity magazines, and the third bill would prohibit those convicted of a misdemeanor hate crime from owning a weapon.
Of all the bills that could possibly make it to the floor for arguments, the most reasonable is H.R. 1236: Extreme Risk Protection Order Act of 2019 — what would become the federal red-flag law.
This federal ERPO is the best point of compromise for Democrats and Republicans as Congress tries to figure out the best way to respond to recent mass shootings.
In 13 of the 17 states with red-flag laws, family members are allowed to file a petition for an ERPO. Anderman, however, said her research shows that law enforcement officers file far more petitions than family members across those 13 states.
The District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maryland, and New York have some of the strictest gun-control laws, allowing non-family members to file a petition. Florida, Rhode Island, and Vermont, however, allow only law enforcement or other state officials to petition.
After 31 people died in the mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas, a Rasmussen Reports survey of 1,000 voters found that a record-high number of voters believe the United States needs stricter gun-control laws. Breaking the previous high of 57% in June 2016, 64% of 1,000 voters support stricter gun control laws.
In an interview with the Washington Post, the Dayton shooter’s ex-girlfriend said the killer heard voices, suffered troubling hallucinations, and battled psychosis from his youth. The El Paso gunman published a racist manifesto before the shooting in which he described his attack as a “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
While red-flag laws won’t stop every mass shooting, homicide, or suicide, they can prevent the frequency of such tragedies. Congress should pass a federal red-flag law to prevent dangerous people from possessing firearms.
Had Ohio and Texas had some form of a red-flag law, it’s possible that both the Dayton and El Paso shooters could have received a court order to give up their firearms.
Julia Mullins junior studying politics and is the city news editor.