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Boulder and Atlanta shootings rekindle debate over red-flag gun laws

Mourners on Thursday walk by fencing around the parking lot of the King Soopers in Boulder, Colo., where a mass shooting left 10 dead earlier in the week. (David Zalubowski/AP)
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Back-to-back mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colo., in less than a week have revived debate over red-flag laws that allow authorities to seize firearms from people considered dangerous, leaving gun-control advocates hopeful that more states will adopt such measures while public attention is still focused on the attacks.

The laws, enacted in less than half the country, are among the only firearm policies supported by both gun-control advocates and the gun rights community, favored largely because they work on a case-by-case basis to prevent imminent violence rather than imposing broad restrictions on firearm owners.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers discussed red-flag laws in a hearing this week on the gun violence epidemic, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she would soon introduce red-flag legislation. A bipartisan group of lawmakers recently floated a similar proposal, and several state legislatures are weighing whether to pass legislation or expand existing policies.

In many mass shootings, Feinstein said in the Senate this week, “family members and law enforcement saw warning signs, but they were powerless to stop the shooter from getting a firearm.”

“Sadly, this is really all too common,” she said.

Red-flag laws work by allowing household members or law enforcement officers to seek an “extreme risk protection order” barring a person’s access to guns if they believe that person poses an immediate threat to themselves or others. With a judge’s permission, authorities can seize firearms from someone deemed high risk for up to a year in most places. The orders are modeled after domestic violence protection orders and are civil, not criminal.

Connecticut passed the country’s first red-flag law in 1999, followed by Indiana and several other states. A flurry of similar legislation passed in the wake of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman killed 17 people. The laws are on the books in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

Whether the renewed efforts stemming from the Atlanta and Boulder attacks will gain traction remains an open question. Experts noted to The Washington Post that while red-flag laws received a surge of support three years ago, even the shock of two deadly shooting rampages in the span of a week may not be enough to jolt state legislatures into action this time.

“It certainly helps to have national attention focused on the problem,” said Jeffrey W. Swanson, a gun violence researcher at Duke University School of Medicine. “There was a strong post-Parkland effect.”

But the states that have enacted red-flag laws — most of them on the East Coast or in the Pacific Northwest — “were the relatively easy ones,” Swanson added. “If you’ve got a state with a combination of very high household gun ownership rate, a strong gun culture, weak gun laws as is, and a Republican governor with a supermajority in the legislature, that’s going to be a hard ask,” he said.

The attack on a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colo., is the latest in a state that has been disproportionately plagued by the gun violence epidemic. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post, Photo: Rachel Woolf for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

In Boulder, the shooting Monday stoked questions about whether the suspected gunman’s family could have invoked Colorado’s red-flag law to remove his firearms before he allegedly killed 10 people at a King Soopers grocery store.

An arrest affidavit for Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, 21, said a relative of the suspect had seen him handling a weapon she described as a “machine gun.” Others in the house were “upset with Alissa for playing with the gun in the house and took the gun,” according to the affidavit.

Some gun rights advocates, including Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), suggested that the attack at the King Soopers was evidence that red-flag laws and other gun-control policies don’t work. Mass shooters “don’t follow the law,” Boebert said in a tweet mentioning Colorado’s red-flag legislation.

Experts, however, say criticisms like Boebert’s misstate what the laws are designed to do.

“That comes up all the time whenever these tragedies happen, and it is not a correct interpretation of the situation,” said Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, co-director of the Firearm Injury and Policy Research Program at the University of Washington. “The focus on creating distance and time between guns and people who display dangerous behavior is a promising strategy. It’s one strategy — it’s not the only strategy.”

Though not much data exists on whether the laws help curb mass shootings, a 2019 report in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that California’s law was used 21 times to seize guns from people who threatened to carry out such attacks. The incidents reviewed by researchers included a case in which a high school student with a history of violent behavior threatened to open fire in an assembly.

Research has also showed that red-flag laws can be especially effective in preventing suicides by firearm. One recent study found that firearm suicides dropped in Connecticut and Indiana, two of the earliest states to adopt the laws, by 13.7 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively.

Those findings have helped buoy red-flag laws, which polls show enjoy wide public support. Experts say the policies are more popular than most other gun-control proposals in part because they target potentially dangerous behavior rather than gun ownership itself — making them less of a lightning rod in Second Amendment debates.

“It is one of the few gun-control measures that if you frame it in the right way, even people who care about gun rights don’t have to see this as an expansion of gun control because it doesn’t affect the rights of lawful gun owners,” Swanson said.

In a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, argued to lawmakers that extreme risk protection orders could be implemented nationwide, pointing to authorities and families alike who had made use of them. She was echoed by Suzanna Hupp, a former Republican state representative in Texas and gun rights activist, who said she was willing to work with Feinstein on red-flag legislation.

Amy Swearer, a senior legal policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, told the committee that there was room for “significant bipartisan support on this,” while saying that some state red-flag laws lacked strong due-process protections for gun owners.

“It can be a very expensive, time-consuming process for innocent persons to go through,” she said, “so that needs to be balanced with that same targeted intervention approach.

Even if new red-flag legislation were to pass at the federal or state level, officials would still have to figure out how to implement it. That means not only training law enforcement in how to handle red-flag petitions but educating the public about how the policies work.

Swanson, the Duke researcher, recalled that when Connecticut adopted its first-in-the-nation red-flag law, it took another mass shooting almost a decade later — the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech — to prompt law enforcement to start using it widely.

“If you pass a law and nobody knows about it,” he said, “you might as well roll up the bill, put it in a bottle and throw it in the ocean.”

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