’Red flag’ laws all the rage after shootings. So what are they?

Red flag laws differ depending on the state, but generally, they can be triggered when a person is a threat to themselves or others.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Aug. 8, 2019

After recent mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, President Donald Trump has called for “red flag laws” to take guns away from people who pose public safety threats.

“We must make sure that those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety do not have access to firearms, and that if they do, those firearms can be taken through rapid due process,” Trump said Monday.

Mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton killed 31 people over the weekend. Otherwise known as risk protection orders, the red flag laws Trump called for have been implemented in Washington D.C. and 15 states, according to Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety. That includes Florida, which did so after the Parkland shooting in 2018. Ohio and Texas do not have red flag laws, but Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has proposed a version of a red flag law this week.

So what are they? How do they work. We’ve got some answers.

What is a red flag law? How did Florida get one?

Red flag laws differ depending on the state, but generally, they can be triggered when a person is a threat to themselves or others. People that know this person, or law enforcement who see “red flags,” can intervene to temporarily prevent access to guns.

In Florida, new gun restrictions were passed and signed into law in March 2018 that included a red flag provision. Florida’s red flag law can be used to prevent people who have been deemed a danger to themselves or others from having a firearm.

How is Florida’s red flag law enforced?

Law enforcement agencies can petition a court for a risk protection order if a person poses a significant threat to themselves or others by having a gun or ammunition.

The court must have a hearing on the petition within 14 days, during which the court can issue a temporary risk protection order. The temporary order would require the person to surrender all firearms and ammunition and ban them from buying or possessing guns.

If the court gives out a full risk protection order at the hearing, it can require people to surrender their guns and ammunition and prevent them from buying or possessing guns for a year. At the end of the order, the person appeals to a judge to determine whether the order should be extended in one year increments, according to Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Cpl. Jessica Mackesy.

If the order is dropped and the person wants their guns back, they can get them from the law enforcement agency that took them.

What had been done to seize guns before?

Many people think Florida’s Baker Act could be used to seize people’s guns, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. That’s not true, he says.

If a person is mentally ill and poses a threat to themselves or others, the 1971 “Baker Act” allows the person to be involuntarily sent to a mental health treatment facility for up to 72 hours. Law enforcement could take the person into custody and transport them to a mental health facility — but not take their guns, Gualtieri said.

“It was a huge frustration for law enforcement for decades,” Gualtieri said. “The person gets out of the mental health unit, they go right back home and the gun is still sitting there, because we had no authority to do anything with it.”

The only thing that could have been done to seize firearms was if a judge ruled a person to be mentally incompetent, Gualtieri said. Last year, out of more than 200,000 Baker Act cases in the state, less than 1 percent ended in such a ruling, he said.

What happens if people don’t give up their guns?

At the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, where the greatest number of risk protection orders have been issued, spokeswoman Carrie Horstman said the agency hasn’t yet run into this problem. However, if deputies have reason to believe someone is in possession of a gun even after an order was carried out, they can seek a search warrant from a judge.

Where is this law being used in Florida?

Since the law went into effect, 2,380 risk protection orders have been issued across the state, according to data from the Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corporation. Polk County has issued the most of any county at 378, with Pinellas County close behind with 350.

Broward County, home to Parkland, has issued 327, Volusia County has issued the next most with 173, then Miami-Dade County with 127 and Hillsborough County with 116.

Mackesy said the program has helped take more than 500 guns off the streets in Pinellas from people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

Are red flag laws popular?

A 2018 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 85 percent of Americans favor laws that let police to take guns from people who are deemed a danger to themselves or others. More than 70 percent of Americans are “strongly” in favor of such laws, the poll found.

Is it keeping people safer?

Gualtieri thinks so.

There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s making the community exponentially safer,” Gualtieri said. “Why shouldn’t we be stopping this stuff at the earlier stages when there are indicators, before somebody is committing a crime or hurting somebody?”

One study in Indiana found that a red flag law cut firearm suicides by 7.5 percent over 10 years. The same study also tracked firearm suicide rates in Connecticut, which dropped 1.6 percent right after it was implemented and nearly 14 percent after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, after which “enforcement of the law substantially increased.”

Times staff writer Kathryn Varn contributed to this story.

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