Red flag laws can make a difference

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The Robb Elementary School massacre in Uvalde, Texas stunned a country tragically accustomed to mass shootings. Coming just days after the atrocities in Buffalo, New York, this latest scandal has bolstered calls for tougher gun laws. This time, perhaps, something could actually be done.

One approach seems particularly promising. So-called red flag laws – measures that allow police or family members to ask a court to intervene when someone poses a threat to themselves or others – command renewed bipartisan support . They are not infallible: nothing could be in a country flooded with weapons. But more than half of mass shooters showed clear warning signs before committing their crimes, making these laws worthwhile. In gun control, the combination of effectiveness and feasibility is rare. Policy makers should seize the moment.

Opponents of red flag laws call them unfair because they lack due process. In truth, they are no more binding than the traditional national protection laws found in all 50 states. No weapon is confiscated without the approval of a judge. If a provisional seizure is approved, a new hearing is convened in the following weeks to allow the beneficiary of the order to present a defence. In turn, the declaring parties must argue the case for the extension of the order. The process is not foolproof but, given the stakes, it is surely fair.

A more pressing concern is whether these laws really work. They’re on the books of 19 states now, but they’re relatively new, so it’s hard to be sure just yet. Still, the research so far is encouraging. In Connecticut, which enacted one of the first red flag laws, a study estimated that one life was saved for every 10 to 20 protective orders issued. A California study looked at 21 orders issued against individuals who had made mass shooting threats and found no violence subsequently attributed to any of them.

It’s unclear how much of a threat Uvalde’s shooter was known to pose before he began his attack. The Buffalo case also highlights its limitations, as New York already had a red flag law. The killer was known to authorities and had undergone a mental health evaluation. Upon his release, without an extreme risk protection order, he was able to go out and buy the murder weapon. Exactly what went wrong is under investigation.

These surveys could provide lessons. Perhaps the responding officers and others were simply unaware of the law. The police must be trained to enforce such orders – and the general public must be educated. Legal ambiguities must also be resolved. The Buffalo shooter was a minor at the time of his mental health evaluation and therefore prohibited from purchasing a firearm under any circumstances; perhaps the authorities thought the red flag law was therefore irrelevant. Washington state has updated its red flag law so it clearly applies to teens who may have access to firearms in the home.

Officials will never be clairvoyant. Mistakes will be made. Yet red flag laws have real potential. In the United States, public opinion and the courts limit what can be done, so policymakers must make the most of imperfect solutions. Whether red flag laws are advanced state by state or by action in the US Congress, the pros will outweigh the cons. After the horrors of Buffalo and Uvalde, there is no excuse not to act.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

Uvalde Families Should Sue Gunsmiths: Timothy L. O’Brien

How to Begin Addressing America’s Gun Culture Problem: Sarah Green Carmichael and Francis Wilkinson

Gun debate must break old patterns: Ramesh Ponnuru

The editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion Editorial Board.

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