What Makes “Red Flag” Gun Laws Work?


“Red flag” laws — which allow judges to confiscate guns from those who threaten violence — tend to be toothless unless they have a local champion: a sheriff, prosecutor, or other authority figure who makes it its mission to teach people to use them effectively, experts say.

Why it matters: Persuading states to implement red flag laws is a key part of the gun law that President Biden recently signed into law.

  • Similar laws already in place in Illinois and New York have failed to prevent the recent mass shootings in Highland Park and Buffalo.
  • However, research shows that when police officers, educators and community leaders are encouraged to use these laws and are trained in their nuances, more court orders will be filed keeping firearms away from potentially dangerous individuals.

Where it says: Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have such laws, allowing law enforcement agencies, family members, and school officials to request civil courts to confiscate firearms for anyone who shows signs of homicidal or suicidal thoughts.

Lessons learned: In the early days of California’s law, which went into effect in 2016, it “didn’t apply unless there was a local champion or someone who was in a position of influence and said, ‘Here’s this law, it’s in the books, we’re starting to apply it,” said Veronica Pear, a professor at the University of California, Davis, who recently published a study on the law’s effectiveness.

  • Between 2016 and 2019 in California, at least 58 people who threatened mass shootings had their guns confiscated on gun violence restraining orders, Pear found.
  • San Diego stood out as a success story because its city attorney, Mara Elliott, “repeatedly publicly endorsed the restraining orders,” “encouraged their use as a gun violence prevention measure, and funded a team dedicated to that effort,” Pear found.

Cross-agency collaboration is also key. Further “red flag” protection orders are typically signed in cities and counties where schools, police departments and mental health agencies share information.

What you say: “There is so much important work that needs to be done to really unlock the preventive potential of these red flags,” says Shannon Frattaroli, who directs the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

She identified three locations where Red Flag “champions” have made a difference:

  • In Maryland, former Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin “took it upon himself to develop a training protocol and program” for the state‘s 2018 red flag law, and “took to the streets,” driving through the state to train officials, Frattaroli said.
  • In King County, Washington, Attorney General Kimberly Wyatt heads a unit dedicated to handling “red flag” cases.
  • Broward County, Fla. — home to Parkland — “filed a total of 255 petitions and confiscated more than 400 guns” in the first year alone of the state’s 2018 Red Flag Act, CNN reports. That’s thanks in large part to the efforts of Sheriff Gregory Tony.

The big picture: Warning signals are seen as an emerging policy tool in the broader field of behavioral threat assessment—the practice of assessing and intervening when people show troubling signs.

  • Illinois and Connecticut are among the states that require schools to conduct behavioral threat assessments.
  • But there are no formal standards for implementation, and “nobody really knows how often it’s used,” says Mark Follman, author of Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America.
  • While decades of research have pointed to best practices in this area, they’re underutilized, Follman said. “There’s still work to be done in raising awareness of tools and red flags, and then providing the resources and sharing information.”

A Success Story: Los Angeles County, which implemented a behavioral risk assessment program in 2008 following the mass shooting at Virginia Tech.

  • Since then, there has been “not a single instance of targeted school violence in LA County” involving the program, says Tony Beliz, who spearheaded the effort when he was assistant mental health commissioner.
  • The program — known as the School Threat Assessment Response Team, or START — includes a dedicated field team that visits at-risk students’ homes and works with their parents. At school, some children are required to report to a resource officer for a “backpack check” twice a day.
  • “The benefits of having a civilian team is that people feel less threatened by people who aren’t law enforcement,” says Beliz, who now teaches at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.

What’s next: The $750 million in the bipartisan gun safety bill for red flag laws has “enormous potential” to improve their implementation, Frattaroli said.

  • “It’s a significant investment,” she said. “I’m excited to see how these grants are awarded and what states and local governments are doing with that money.”

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