Paul A. Friedman is the founder and executive director of Safer Country, an Alexandria-based gun-violence prevention nonprofit working to keep guns out of unsafe hands.
The madness since Sandy Hook has only increased, and Alexandria has not been immune to this disease. Early weekday mornings are usually tranquil in Alexandria’s Simpson Park, located in the community of Del Ray. Five years ago, however, on the morning of Wednesday, June 14, 2017, members of Congress, their staffers and others practicing for a charity baseball game were attacked. Thanks, in part, to heroic first responders, no one was killed.
A short time ago, on May 24, 19 children and two teachers were killed in another elementary school. This one, Robb Elementary, was in Uvalde, Tex.
In his comments about the horror in Uvalde, President Biden noted that America has recorded “over 900 incidents of gunfire … on school grounds.” “When in God’s name,” Biden uttered, “will we do what we all know in our guts needs to be done?” No doubt, he was also thinking of the attack that took 10 lives just 10 days earlier in Buffalo.
Though these mass shootings are distinct in many ways, it’s now known that a number of them could have been prevented by a properly used red-flag law. The first red-flag law was passed in Connecticut in 1999. They empower a judge to order the temporary removal of a gun or guns from a person found to be an imminent danger to himself or herself or others. To provide constitutional due process, every state law includes a court hearing to review the removal within two weeks. Red-flag laws save lives. They have been used often and effectively to prevent spontaneous suicides and mass shootings. The laws are also valuable in states that don’t require the removal of guns when a preliminary protective order is issued in cases of domestic violence, such as Virginia.
In different forms, the law exists in 19 states (two of which, Florida and Indiana, are Republican-controlled red states) and in D.C. Florida passed its red-flag law in response to the Parkland tragedy — proving that, on occasion, Republicans will vote for a law to protect Americans from gun violence. There was conviction that a red-flag law could have prevented that nightmare.
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Virginia enacted its law in 2020, making it the most recent state to do so. The law is far from permanent, though. Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) campaigned on rolling back the gun-reform laws passed by Democrats, which included the state’s red-flag law. Virginia’s new Republican-majority House of Delegates tried and failed to repeal the law in the last legislative session. It was only because of the Democratic-controlled Senate that it survived.
The Uvalde killer appears to have made his plans known well in advance In Buffalo, the accused shooter had been given a mental examination in a hospital for threatening a murder-suicide last June. The Buffalo police still haven’t explained why the state’s red-flag law wasn’t used, but Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) has already acted to address that failure, creating a requirement for the police to use the red-flag law if there is probable cause to believe a person presents a threat to himself or herself or others. Texas, controlled by the Republican Party, has refused to pass a red-flag law.
The congressional baseball shooting at Simpson Field might have been prevented by a red-flag law too, had it been the law in Illinois, where the shooter lived before coming to Alexandria. In Illinois, he had run-ins with the law, including a domestic attack that included a shotgun.
The Senate has forged a bipartisan framework that includes a plan to incentivize states to pass red-flag laws and strengthen those that already exist. That’s a big step in the right direction, but every state should be required to include the provision just added in New York. The law should also mandate that the burden of proof to issue a court order be a preponderance of the evidence rather than the more difficult standard of clear and convincing evidence. As it stands, the standard is not consistent from state to state.
Red-flag laws are most effective when the public gets involved. In one local example, in March of this year, the ex-girlfriend of a very troubled man alerted the police that he had told her his intention to “shoot up” Alexandria’s courthouse and his goal was “murder-suicide.” With her help, the police were able to find him, apply Virginia’s red-flag law, and get him the help he needed at Inova Alexandria Hospital.
That’s why Safer Country initiated a red-flag public awareness campaign with the message “Prevent A Gun Tragedy — Speak Up!” Safer Country started the ball rolling in Fairfax County and is working to get every jurisdiction with a red-flag law to get the word out by adopting our message.
Though red-flag laws alone are not the answer to the gun violence crisis in our nation, they are a vital component. Using them effectively can help create a safer country.