IN 1998, a disgruntled accountant at the Connecticut Lottery went on a rampage, gunning down four of his bosses before turning the gun on himself. The 35-year-old gunman in the months before the attack had shown signs of being troubled. He had suffered from depression, co-workers had expressed concern about his expressions of anger, and police had visited his apartment after he had been seen holding a knife to his throat. The tragedy — and all the what-if questions that accompanied it — prompted Connecticut to pass a law that allows judges to issue an order enabling law enforcement to confiscate weapons from people deemed a risk to themselves or others.
It was a little-noticed move, and over the next 20 years only a handful of other states followed Connecticut’s lead in enacting so-called red-flag laws. But last year’s mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., reshaped the national debate over gun control and prompted renewed interest in Connecticut’s pioneering effort to keep weapons out of the hands of the wrong people. A dozen more states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation allowing law enforcement to remove guns from individuals seen as a danger, and a number of others, including Virginia, are considering similar legislation. Depending on the state, the laws allow relatives or police to seek a court order enabling police to remove guns from an individual’s home and restrict their ability to purchase firearms. The person seeking the order must provide evidence of potential danger, and the court holds an expedited hearing. If the judge believes there is a threat, guns will be removed for a period that can last from a few weeks to a year.
Maryland was among the states that adopted a red-flag law after the Parkland slaughter, and it is showing promising results. Testimony last week to the Maryland House Judiciary Committee revealed that in the three months after the law took effect on Oct. 1, Maryland courts seized guns from 148 people after it was determined there was probable cause the individuals posed a danger to themselves or others. Four of the gun owners posed “significant threats” to schools, according to Montgomery County Sheriff Darren M. Popkin (D). “These orders are not only being issued appropriately; they are saving lives,” he told lawmakers.
Most of the petitions come from family or household members who have direct and specific knowledge of danger. The experience of states that have had the laws on the books the longest shows most concerns stem from fears of the person doing harm to themselves, and research has shown a decrease in firearm suicide in those states.
Lawmakers in states now debating these measures would do well to pay attention to those studies and to the early success in Maryland.