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Would A Federal Red Flag Law Help Prevent Mass Shootings In The U.S.?


As we just heard, one of the options that Governor DeWine is considering is what's known as a red flag law. These laws temporarily prevent people who may be a harm to themselves or others from accessing firearms. For more on how the laws have played out in states that already have them, we're joined by reporter Leigh Paterson of member station KUNC in northern Colorado.

Welcome to the program.


SHAPIRO: So far, these laws have only been passed to the state and local level. How widespread are they?

PATERSON: Yeah. So at our most recent count, 17 states plus the District of Columbia have some sort of red flag law or extreme risk law on the books. Many of these laws are fairly new and were passed after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., last year. The state of Florida has one. Here in Colorado, the governor signed an extreme risk bill into law this past legislative session after months and months of contentious debate. And there are more states that are considering them. Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina - all have some sort of red flag law proposed in their legislature - red flag bill, rather.

SHAPIRO: Explain why the debate was so contentious. I mean, what's the objection that people have to these laws?

PATERSON: Well, the biggest criticism is that red flag laws are unconstitutional. People say that they violate the Second Amendment essentially because they limit access to guns. Here in Colorado, there is a state level gun group called Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, and it calls the state's red flag law a gun confiscation scheme. They've been on Facebook Live recently talking about all of this. There are also concerns that malicious or untrue claims against people could be taken seriously and that red flag laws infringe on due process rights.

SHAPIRO: Oh, so, like, I have a vendetta against an ex. I say this person should not be owning guns, and suddenly, their guns get confiscated even though I might just have a personal vendetta and they haven't really done anything wrong.

PATERSON: Right, right, right. That's exactly it. And that's because this initial order is done in a way that's called an ex parte order. And that means that the subject, the person whose guns could get taken away, isn't actually present at that first hearing when the judge is deciding what to do. But I would note that this is not entirely unusual. Restraining orders, for example, are often issued ex parte.

SHAPIRO: In states and cities that have passed these laws, how effective have they been? Have - can you tell if they've actually reduced gun violence?

PATERSON: So we can look at Connecticut. Connecticut has had one of these laws on the books since 1999. It was actually put in place after a workplace shooting at the Connecticut Lottery. A worker killed four people and then killed himself. So since then, state records show that the measure has been used in all kinds of situations, from violent threats against school officials, against co-workers, against intimate partners but especially in cases of self-harm. So the first 10 years that the law was in place, in over half of the cases, the complaint had to do with suicide risk.

SHAPIRO: Oh, interesting.

PATERSON: We could also look at Florida. Florida's red flag law, in the short time it's been in place, it's also been used frequently when people are saying they're going to hurt themselves. But overall, because in most states this law is fairly new and data is still being gathered, it's just - it's really too soon to know with any certainty whether or not they work, which is not to say that red flag laws can't be used to prevent mass shootings. They're just more often used in suicide prevention, which makes sense - right? - because suicide is a much more common type of gun violence.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. We've been talking about state red flag laws. What would a federal law look like?

PATERSON: Senator Lindsey Graham, who says he's planning to introduce bipartisan legislation, he described sort of what he has in mind in a statement earlier this week. A federal red flag law would basically be a grant program that would assist states in implementing their own red flag laws. That money would go to law enforcement. Law enforcement would then hire mental health professionals to work with them to help them navigate situations where a red flag law might be used. Now, Graham, along with Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, who's a Democrat, they've worked on similar proposals in the past. And just this past spring, Graham did hold a hearing on red flag laws.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: I'm a big fan of the Second Amendment. I own firearms, and I try to be responsible in my ownership. But at the same time, every right has limits.

PATERSON: This is also the kind of legislation that a number of Democratic presidential candidates have said they support.

SHAPIRO: That's Leigh Paterson of member station KUNC in Colorado.

Thanks a lot.

PATERSON: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And this story comes to us from Guns & America, a public media reporting project focused on the role of guns in American life. And please remember; if you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.