Will ‘red flag’ gun laws prevent mass shootings?

Illegally possessed firearms seized by authorities are shown at a news conference in Los Angeles Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

The “red flag” gun laws supported by President Donald Trump and, increasingly, members of Congress, are a step toward reducing gun violence and gun deaths, but they’re only part of the solution, says Matthew Miller, a Northeastern professor who studies firearm-related violence. 

Such laws, usually coded in legislature as “extreme risk protection order” laws, are designed to allow local law enforcement officials and family members to move quickly to confiscate the firearms of people who are considered to be at risk of harming themselves or others.

In a news conference just days after back-to-back mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, President Donald Trump said he supported red flag gun laws as a way to hamper would-be shooters. Shortly thereafter, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, vowed to introduce a bipartisan “red flag proposal” with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have already implemented red flag laws. Hawaii and Nevada have voted upon laws that will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

Matthew Miller, is a professor of health sciences and epidemiology at Northeastern University. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

In most states with red flag laws, police, family members, and people who live in the same house as the gun owner can petition a state court judge to issue orders to temporarily confiscate the firearms.

This means that the people closest to a person who might use a gun to hurt themselves or someone else are empowered by red flag laws to act quickly to have law enforcement confiscate guns from the person who is at acute and substantial risk, says Miller, a professor of health sciences and epidemiology at Northeastern. He draws an analogy to the concept of a designated driver.

“If someone’s gone out to drink, there’s no shame in asking for their keys when it’s time to drive home,” Miller says. “Nor should it be a shameful thing to ask someone who is depressed or otherwise in danger of hurting themselves to hand over their guns.” 

When it’s not enough to rely on the person to hand over their guns, red flag laws provide a mechanism to act swiftly and in ways that may well save lives, Miller says.   

“One way to substantially reduce the risk that someone will die by a firearm, especially from suicide, is to remove guns from their home,” Miller says. The red flag laws supported by Trump and members of Congress are a way to do just that, Miller says.

But just as taking away someone’s keys when they’ve had too much to drink doesn’t solve an underlying issue of alcoholism, enacting red flag laws is only part of the solution when it comes to preventing mass shootings and gun violence more broadly, Miller says. 

“We shouldn’t take false comfort that once we’ve passed these laws, we’ve solved the problem,” Miller says. “It’s one incremental step. A worthwhile step. But big changes in rates of firearm violence will take many worthwhile steps, especially if together, these steps help shift the way people think about the risks and benefits of gun ownership such that someday—hopefully sooner rather than later—it will be as much a no-brainer to ask someone for his firearm as to ask for his car keys when doing so has a good chance of preventing injury and death.” 

For media inquiries, please contact Shannon Nargi at s.nargi@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.