Red flag laws may play decisive role in preventing mass shootings like Dayton and El Paso

Red flag laws create mechanisms for family members and law enforcement officers to move quickly and get guns out of the hands of people who are at imminent risks to the safety of themselves or others


                            Red flag laws may play decisive role in preventing mass shootings like Dayton and El Paso

Case studies of individuals threatening mass violence suggest that extreme risk protection orders, colloquially known as ‘red flag’ orders, may play a decisive role in preventing mass shootings.

Such orders - also called gun violence restraining orders - are civil orders which create mechanisms for family members or law enforcement officers to move in quickly and get guns out of the hands of people identified as showing risks of imminent violence to self or others.

For their study, a research team from the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis School of Medicine examined 21 cases in which extreme risk protection orders were used in response to threats of mass violence.

Researchers found that most of the subjects had made explicit threats and owned firearms. After gun violence restraining orders were issued, 52 firearms were recovered with 26 of them in one case. 

The researchers conducted “print, broadcast, and Internet media Google searches” using the subjects’ names and locations to determine if they were the perpetrators of any violent events from the date of the order.

The findings show that as of early August 2019, none of the threatened shootings had occurred, and no other homicides or suicides by persons subject to the orders were identified.

According to the authors, these cases suggest that this “urgent, individualized intervention” has a role to play in efforts to prevent mass shootings, in healthcare settings and elsewhere.

“In these cases, gun violence restraining orders allowed for immediate intervention to reduce firearm access, in most instances, because of timely reports from threatened parties and members of the public. It is impossible to know whether violence would have occurred had the restraining orders not been issued, and we make no claim of a causal relationship. This is a preliminary report that is subject to other limitations. The limitations notwithstanding, these cases suggest that this urgent, individualized intervention can play a role in efforts to prevent mass shootings, in health care settings and elsewhere. In their demographic characteristics, frequent declarations of intent, declarations of animosity toward targeted populations, and access to firearms, these individuals resemble persons who have committed mass violence,” says the study published in Annals of Internal Medicine.

According to the researchers, nearly 80% of perpetrators of mass violence in public places make explicit threats or behave in a manner “indicative of their intent to carry out an attack.”

For example, public mass shootings in Parkland, Florida; Aurora, Colorado; and Tucson, Arizona, among others, were committed by assailants known to family members, acquaintances, law enforcement agencies, and in some cases, health professionals to be at high risk for violence, says the team. 

“Public mass shootings in California, Texas, and Ohio in late July and early August 2019 have led to widespread discussion of the potential for extreme risk protection orders or ERPOs to prevent such events and reports that Congress may consider legislation to create a federal ERPO policy,” say the researchers.

Two recent mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas, had killed 31 people and injured dozens in less than 24 hours. 

They add, “ERPOs provide a rapid, focused response when the risk of imminent firearm violence is high. Studies to date suggest that these interventions are effective at preventing suicide, but their efficacy in preventing mass shootings is not known.” 

Public mass shootings in California, Texas, and Ohio in late July and early August 2019 have led to widespread discussion of the potential for extreme risk protection orders or ERPOs to prevent such events and reports that Congress may consider legislation to create a federal ERPO policy, says the study. (Getty Images)

What are extreme risk protection orders?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which is a US-based advocacy group, extreme risk protection orders are civil court orders issued by judges to temporarily remove firearms or ammunition from persons “who are identified as posing immediate or imminent risks to the safety of themselves or others.”

Currently, 14 states plus the District of Columbia have passed laws authorizing ERPOs, and similar legislation is pending in several other states.

In his testimony to the US Senate Judiciary Committee regarding extreme risk protection orders, Ron Honberg, NAMI’s senior policy advisor, emphasized that the criteria for ERPOs should be based on specific, real-time behaviors and evidence-based risk factors for violence rather than targeting or singling out people with mental illness. 

“NAMI supports state laws authorizing ERPOs when they are carefully crafted to focus on evidence-based risk factors for violence. ERPOs provide legal mechanisms for family members or law enforcement officers to petition courts for the removal of firearms from people whose actions or statements raise concerns about the potential for violence towards themselves or others. The criteria for issuing ERPOs in state laws are based on specific, real-time behaviors rather than categorical assumptions based on past events, such as civil commitments, that may or may not reflect the person’s current state of mind. When properly utilized, they can be potentially lifesaving, particularly in preventing suicides, which are frequently impulsive acts,” says Honberg in his statement on behalf of NAMI.

He adds, “An individual’s history of mental illness or specific diagnosis is not a good predictor for violence.”

The current study

For the current study, researchers sought to evaluate the California statute’s implementation and effectiveness by reviewing court cases for persons subject to the orders.

In California, ERPOs are known as gun violence restraining orders (GVROs).

Law enforcement officers may petition for temporary emergency GVROs 24 hours a day. Of 414 cases that have taken place between 2016 to 2018, the authors received 159 and developed an aggregate summary and individual histories for a preliminary series of 21 cases.

Their research shows that most subjects were male and non-Hispanic white and the mean age was 35.

Most of the subjects, found the researchers, had made explicit threats and owned firearms. After gun violence restraining orders were issued, 52 firearms were recovered, and 26 of them in one case. (Getty Images)

For example, in one of the case studies examined by the researchers, a school administrator reported to the police that a 14-year-old male student with a history of racist comments at school had posted videos on Instagram of himself using firearms, favorable comments regarding school violence and shootings, racist comments, and suggestions of animal cruelty.

“A related investigation had determined that the student used school computers to research firearms and searched on terms such as “white power.” His father owned a 9mm semi-automatic pistol and a .30-caliber rifle. The student was taken into custody for an emergency psychiatric evaluation and claimed that he had been joking. A GVRO was obtained, and the father’s firearms were turned in to a licensed retailer the day the order was served. A 1-year order after the hearing was issued subsequently,” says the study.

In another example, during phone calls with his mother and a family friend, a 24-year-old man with a history of excessive alcohol and marijuana use threatened to kill employees of the family business, his family, and himself the following day by shooting or bombing.

He had threatened employees twice previously, and a prior conviction for a separate weapon offense had led to residential mental health treatment.

“The subject’s uncle closed the business because of safety concerns, reopened the next workday with private security on-site, and reported the incident to the police three days later. The subject’s mother petitioned for a GVRO three days after the uncle contacted the police, and the order was issued. The subject filed an agreement with the order and surrendered 26 firearms (1 shotgun, 4 rifles, 2 assault-type rifles, 18 semi-automatic pistols, and 1 of unspecified type). A 1-year order after the hearing was issued subsequently,” state the findings.

Based on their preliminary series of 21 case studies, the researchers recommend that further research would be helpful to determine the effectiveness of such orders definitively and whether they can play a decisive role in preventing mass shootings.

“California has responded to concerns that the policy might be abused by making it a misdemeanor to file a GVRO petition ‘knowing the information in the petition to be false or with the intent to harass.’ Further evaluation of the implementation and effectiveness of ERPO policies in California and other jurisdictions where they have been enacted would be helpful,” says the study.

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