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Red flag laws are saving lives. They could save more

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 12, 2021

Mourners visit a makeshift memorial outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, 2020, the two-year anniversary of the Parkland shooting that left 17 people dead.  (MATIAS J. OCNER)
Mourners visit a makeshift memorial outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, 2020, the two-year anniversary of the Parkland shooting that left 17 people dead. (MATIAS J. OCNER)
By Matt Vasilogambros Stateline.org

Alyssa Shaw’s job is to guide Seattle-area residents through what can be one of the most wrenching and complicated experiences of their lives: petitioning civil courts to temporarily take away the firearms of a loved one in a mental health crisis who may harm themselves or others.

Washington state’s extreme risk protection order law – often called a red flag law – has been on the books for five years, but most Washingtonians don’t know the law exists, let alone the details of the petitioning process, said Shaw, the state’s first red flag law advocate. Often, people find out about the law only after they call the police to report that a family or household member is making threats or is experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Shaw thinks of herself as a translator of the legal system. She walks family or household members through the petition process, often gathering background information about the person who might be a threat, asking whether the petitioner feels safe and connecting them with community resources.

“Families need support and it just makes the most sense that if we’re trying to prevent tragedies from happening, that shouldn’t just be on the backs of family members,” said Shaw, who works in a multi-agency unit that includes the Seattle City Attorney’s Office and the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. “We need to be providing all the support we can.”

Red flag laws have become an increasingly popular tool to prevent mass shootings, suicides and deadly domestic violence. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have adopted them, sometimes with bipartisan support. Fourteen of those laws came after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida – a catalyzing event that led to a wave of gun restrictions nationwide.

Many law enforcement officials, public health researchers and legislators think these laws prevent gun deaths by allowing people to act on early warning signs. But they say the public and even some police officers have so little knowledge of the tool that it isn’t used as often as it should be.

Most states allow only law enforcement and family or household members to petition the courts to temporarily seize or prevent the purchase of firearms, while some states also offer the option to medical professionals, school officials, co-workers and current or former partners. Five states, meanwhile, allow only law enforcement officials to petition. The length of the firearm timeout varies by state, but it typically lasts for up to a year.

Extreme risk protection orders must meet specific legal standards, and petitioners must present evidence, which a judge considers in a hearing. Police officers also may collect sworn statements. Initial research in at least one state, Colorado, suggests law enforcement officers are most likely to have their petitions granted.

“The law is not complicated, but it is important to get the word out to the public about a law they can actually use to save lives,” Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, a Democrat, told Stateline.

So far this year, Oregon courts have issued more than 260 extreme risk protection orders. While the 2017 law is working well, Rosenblum said, it’s not as widely used as it ought to be.

The lack of activity is a common concern, said Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine and one the country’s leading researchers on red flag laws.

“You pass the law and then nothing happens,” he said. “There’s no real systematic efforts to invest in letting people know about it, educating the stakeholder groups who need to know about it, setting up the infrastructure and protocol to do it.”

But there are efforts underway to close this gap.

Public education falling short

In Washington state, voters approved the red flag law by a ballot initiative. Even though it passed with 69% support, just a handful of residents filed petitions in its first two years, said Kim Wyatt, senior deputy prosecuting attorney for King County. Because the L egislature did not allocate money for the law’s implementation, there were no public education efforts.

Over the past three years, a team of prosecutors and law enforcement officers from King County and Seattle crafted a model policy for jurisdictions throughout the state to follow. Having a point of contact to guide law enforcement and communities through the complicated process was essential, said Wyatt, who leads the Regional Domestic Violence Firearms Enforcement Unit.

Her office has hosted three summits for law enforcement, judges, prosecutors and community advocates. It also has led training for county crisis line workers, crafted training resources for the state’s police academy and worked with local Veterans Affairs offices to advise officials on suicide prevention among former members of the military.

“There’s quite a big list of those to educate and get the word out,” Wyatt said.

In California, two-thirds of people polled in 2020 had never heard of the state’s red flag law, according to a survey by the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center. While the number of petitions has increased since the law’s implementation in 2016, that uptick has been slow, University of California, Davis researchers found.

San Diego leads the state in orders and has removed more than 1,000 guns from more than 550 people over the past four years.

City Attorney Mara W. Elliott told Stateline that the law is a lifesaving tool. Her office has trained 400 law enforcement agencies throughout California on the red flag law and how to file petitions, known in the state as gun violence restraining orders. California allocated $1 million over the next three years for San Diego’s statewide training efforts.

In Illinois, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation in August that adds yearly training on the state’s red flag law for law enforcement officers and creates a public education campaign through the state Department of Public Health. The state’s original law, signed in 2018 by then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, lacked the funding for either of these resources.

The original law in Illinois was being underused, said Democratic state Rep. Denyse Stoneback, the primary sponsor of this year’s bill.

“We really needed to get the word out,” she said in an interview with Stateline.

Colorado took a similar step this year. In June, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed into law a measure that creates the Office of Gun Violence Prevention in the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment. The new office will lead the state’s public education and training efforts on the red flag law that took effect in 2020.

The legislature appropriated $3 million for the office to educate residents, nonprofit officials, health care providers and law enforcement about the availability and process of filing a petition to seize weapons.

In its first year, Colorado’s red flag law produced fewer than 125 extreme risk protection orders. Courts denied 46 petitions to seize firearms.

“What the public needs to know is we need your engagement and your awareness,” Democratic Attorney General Phil Weiser said. “If individuals know about a risk, but they don’t know that there’s this tool to save this person’s life by removing their firearm, it may never be used appropriately.”

In Douglas County, just south of the Denver area, Sheriff Tony Spurlock is a leading advocate for the state’s law, at times taking political heat from gun rights advocates who question the law’s due process protections. But Spurlock, an avid Second Amendment supporter, insists the law is saving lives. All four people who were subjects of petitions in his community are still alive today, he noted.

“It’s our responsibility to protect our citizens from harm,” he said. “We have a tool that is very valuable and will make a difference in the community.”

Spurlock, a Republican, has shared his policies and training materials with several police and sheriffs’ departments in the state. His office also released a podcast and a Facebook Live for residents to better understand the law. He now hopes to be involved in a statewide educational effort about the law.

When law enforcement leads the way

The best way to increase the use of extreme risk protection orders is to train law enforcement officers, said Shannon Frattaroli, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University.

“It’s more strategic and effective to invest in the people who are the professionals and who will be in contact with those who are in crisis themselves or supporting people in crisis,” she said.

Frattaroli points to Maryland as a state that has been effective in implementing its law. She gives significant credit to the law enforcement officials who helped draft the legislation and legitimize it in the eyes of those tasked with carrying it out.

The measure, signed in 2018 by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, was in part championed by Darren Popkin, the sheriff for Montgomery County, which borders Washington, D.C. In the five months between the passage of the law and its implementation, Popkin, a Democrat, traveled around the state training local law enforcement agencies, state police officers and sheriffs.

With that knowledge, officers responding to incidents of domestic violence or other related calls can introduce families to the red flag law and walk them through the process. Courts in Maryland can process petitions 24 hours a day, so there isn’t a delay in seizing firearms in critical situations.

In Maryland, about half of petitions are filed by law enforcement and the other half by family or household members, with a smattering of petitions coming from mental health providers. In other states, law enforcement officers file nearly every petition.

Popkin credits that to his statewide training program: When officers respond to a 911 call, they inform residents of the red flag law when appropriate.

“When officers knock on the door,” he said, “I do expect 100% of them are aware of extreme risk protection orders.”

In other areas of the country, local law enforcement agencies have had to take the initiative.

After a shooter killed 17 students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, Florida quickly passed a red flag law. Signed by then-Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, the law did not include funding to train officers statewide. That burden has been put on local police departments.

Fort Lauderdale Detective Christopher Carita serves on the six-person Threat Response Unit that investigates threats that could lead to a mass casualty incident, often employing extreme risk protection orders. Without guidance from the state, Carita drafted a lesson plan for his fellow Fort Lauderdale officers and new recruits on the best practices for the red flag law.

“This is about having a tool that gives someone assurance that the ultimate goal is not to hurt them or lock them up,” he said. “It’s to save their life or prevent them from doing something they can’t undo.”

For many Fort Lauderdale officers, the law is personal: The agency’s SWAT team responded to the high school shooting in Parkland, and some officers had children who were there.

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