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Understanding 'red flag' gun laws and bipartisan momentum

After the Lewiston shooting, scrutiny over unheeded warning signs and Maine's "yellow flag" gun law sparks bipartisan momentum for "red flag" laws.
Understanding 'red flag' gun laws and bipartisan momentum
Posted at 5:06 PM, Nov 04, 2023

The mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, has left a community reeling, and authorities are still asking questions.

Chief among them is the history of warning signs that were seemingly missed by the system and why he was allowed to legally purchase a weapon days before the shooting.

“They are continuing to respond and continuing to investigate who knew what when, and we want to get the best answer to how can we prevent something like this from happening,” said Maine Governor Janet Mills.

Back in the spotlight are so-called "red flag" laws intended to allow the court to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person who has been found to be an immediate risk to themselves or others.

States with these laws vary in who is allowed to petition the court to confiscate weapons, like teachers, coworkers, or family. But most states only allow law enforcement.

As of June 2023, 21 states had passed some form of "red flag" law. Michigan and Minnesota's laws go into effect in early 2024.

Maine has what's called a "yellow flag" law. Only law enforcement can petition, and it is the only state to require a medical professional to conduct an evaluation in order for the court order to be issued.

“We said, you know, can we come up with some mechanism that if the police have no other options, for example, there's no evidence that a crime has been committed,” said Michael Lawlor.

Lawlor is a University of New Haven professor of criminal justice, former prosecutor, and legislator. He co-authored the first "red flag" law in 1999 in Connecticut.

“Can we give them another option where people have reached out to the police and reported what they're seeing? And that's the 'red flag' law,” Lawlor explained.

Critics of "red flag" laws argue they infringe on Second Amendment rights or deny a person Fourth Amendment rights to due process of law.

SEE MORE: Maine has a 'yellow flag' law meant to reduce gun violence

These arguments have led to some pushback in other states.

In Colorado, a "red flag" law was passed in 2019. But nearly half of the state's counties declared themselves "Second Amendment Sanctuaries," declaring they would not enforce the law.

Lawlor said in Connecticut, the law was written anticipating Fourth Amendment objections.

“So we wrote some safeguards into the bill. In other words, we made it identical to the process police have to follow to get a search warrant. You know, the exact same language so that they could see this is perfectly compliant with the Fourth Amendment,” said Lawlor. “It's worth noting that here in Connecticut, our state constitution says every citizen has the right to possess firearms in defense of himself, and the state is obligated to prove by clear and convincing evidence that you continue to be an imminent danger to yourself or to others. And based on that, a judge can order a further withholding of firearms.”

The president signed bipartisan legislation in 2022 to help states pass more "red flag" laws. The administration also set aside funds to help states administer the laws or other crisis-intervention programs.

While the battle over gun rights in the U.S. remains one of the most contentious political divides in the country, support for "red flag" laws is surprisingly bipartisan.

According to a 2022 poll from Data for Progress, 50% of Republican voters either somewhat or strongly support a federal "red flag" law.

In the spring of 2023, a survey of registered voters conducted by Fox News found that 80% of Americans support allowing police to confiscate guns from someone who's a danger to themselves or others.

“It is worth noting that the second state after Connecticut to adopt the "red flag" law was Indiana, which would not be on the suspect list for passing gun laws, right? Florida adopted one in the aftermath of the Parkland shootings, Parkland High School, and so there's a mixture of red and blue states that have enacted this law almost always in the aftermath of a tragedy,” said Lawlor.

Researchers at Yale, Duke, and the University of Connecticut found "red flag" laws have been effective in reducing suicides, which is the most common way Americans are killed by guns.

Research on homicides has been more limited, but a study from gun-control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety found suspects showed warning signs before more than half of all mass shootings between 2009 and 2017.

“Citizens have to be aware of their responsibility to say something when they see something," said Lawlor. “A reality that passing a law doesn't solve a problem. It's the implementation of that law. That is key.”

After the tragedy in Lewiston, many lawmakers in Maine and other states may be re-evaluating their approaches.

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