A new gun-control measure could temporarily seize people’s firearms if they raise ‘red flags’ — and a growing number of Republicans are on board

  • Liberals and some conservatives are proposing states enact “red flag” laws to temporarily prevent dangerous people from buying or possessing guns.
  • The laws would allow people to request restraining orders if they’re concerned a relative or someone close to them is a threat to themselves or others.
  • Some advocates believe such laws could have prevented Nikolas Cruz from owning the AR-15 he allegedly used in the Florida high-school shooting.

Public discourse on gun violence has followed a familiar pattern in the wake of a deadly high-school shooting in Florida. Gun-control advocates immediately demanded sweeping measures like assault weapons bans, and their opponents predictably shot them down as Second Amendment violations.

But a growing bipartisan group of lawmakers and advocates have begun championing “red flag laws” as a potential gun-control measure that could both prevent potentially dangerous people from possessing firearms and preserve gun rights.

The laws function similarly to those that govern common restraining orders. Someone who fears a family member or acquaintance is a threat to themselves or others can ask police to seize their weapons temporarily and bar them from buying more until a judge determines the person is no longer a risk.

They’re called gun-violence restraining orders or extreme risk protection orders, and Connecticut, California, Washington, Oregon, and Indiana have implemented them in recent years to some success.

Were the laws in place in Florida during Cruz’s upbringing, advocates speculated that he could have been barred from buying or owning the AR-15 he used to allegedly gun down 17 students and staff members.

‘This shooting may have been averted’

Nikolas cruz
Nikolas Cruz appears in court for a status hearing before Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. South Florida Sun-Sentinel/Mike Stocker via Associated Press

Police and media reports revealed that a number of people close to Cruz were so disturbed by his behaviour and violent outbursts that they contacted local or federal authorities to warn them he could snap.

Records of nearly two dozen 911 calls released by the Broward Sheriff’s Office show that authorities responded to a variety of reports where Cruz had become violent, run away from home, harmed himself, and even threatened to shoot up a school.

But none of those calls resulted in Cruz’s arrest, or had him committed to a mental health facility – and he got to keep his guns.

“I heard the [Broward County] sheriff lament the fact that he did not have the tools to remove the firearms from the shooter,” Joshua Horwitz, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, told The Washington Post. “Had he lived in one of those states where this law is in place, he would have had the tools, and this shooting may have been averted.”

There’s reason to believe other states’ red flag laws have been effective. Though it’s difficult to count the number of mass shootings that were prevented, a 2016 study found that Connecticut’s red flag law appeared to avert some suicides since it was enacted in 1999.

In California, the San Diego City Attorney’s office has already filed 10 such retraining orders since it began issuing them in December 2017. The office issued its first order to a man whose neighbours had called police when he drunkenly shot at raccoons and rats in his backyard.

An order in San Diego lasts 12 months – enough time for the person time to seek mental-health treatment before a court decides whether to lift the order. But in other parts of the state, the orders can last as little as 21 days.

‘Right to due process’

Already, Florida’s Republican governor has indicated support for similar laws, and states like Rhode Island and Maryland are also mulling them over.

“I want to make it virtually impossible for anyone who has mental issues to use a gun. I want to make it virtually impossible for anyone who is a danger to themselves or others to use a gun,”Gov. Rick Scott said at a press conference last week.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has also touted the laws, citing a recent National Review column by conservative writer David French.

“Not just me calling for conservatives to consider ‘red flag’ gun law,” Rubio tweeted February 18. “It’s called gun-violence restraining order & can be crafted to respect 2nd Amendment & right to due process.”

French’s column argued that the federal government has consistently failed to prevent mass shootings, even when officials are tipped off, as the FBI was with Cruz. But gun-violence restraining orders would instead empower family members, local authorities, and judges to act, French argued.

“The great benefit of the [gun violence restraining order] is that it provides citizens with options other than relying on, say, the FBI,” French wrote. “Let’s place accountability on the lowest possible level of government: the local judges who consistently and regularly adjudicate similar claims in the context of family and criminal law.”

The National Rifle Association has previously opposed red flag laws, arguing that Oregon’s version could “deprive someone of their Second Amendment rights without due process of the law.” But NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch indicated at a CNN town hall that local authorities should have had better tools to deprive Cruz of his weapons.

“We have to develop better protocol to follow up on red flags. This monster carrying bullets to school, carrying knives to school, assaulting students, assaulting his parents, 39 visits in the past year,” Loesch said. “That should never have been allowed to get that far.”

An NRA spokeswoman also told The Hill that the organisation “supports keeping firearms out of the hands of dangerously mentally ill people”, and wouldn’t comment on specific bills until seeing the language.