Since 1999, at least 2,000 people have been killed in some type of mass shooting. This year alone, the United States has had over 565 mass shootings (incidents in which four or more people have been killed).
Yet again, the United States is in the wake of yet another mass shooting. 18 people were killed and another 13 were injured in Lewiston, Maine on Oct. 26. The senseless violence that ravaged this community is heartbreaking. What’s even more heartbreaking was that there were clear signs of the gunman’s mental dysfunction prior to the shooting.
Five months earlier, the shooter’s family had reached out to the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office and voiced their concerns about their son’s growing mental decay. Even coworkers voiced concerns; on Sept. 15, a coworker reached out to the Sheriff’s office saying that they were concerned about how he was “going to snap and commit a mass shooting.”
There was something deeply familiar when reading the reporting surrounding the Lewiston shooter’s mental state before the tragedy. He possessed so many apparent warning signs that he was an individual who should be nowhere near a gun.
But what if I told you that there exists a policy tool that gives law enforcement the ability to take guns out of the hands of people who demonstrate a clear threat to either themselves or others?
Red flag laws are designed to keep weapons out of the hands of people who are at high risk of committing violence with a firearm.
They do this by allowing for the application of a gun violence restraining order. A person with one of these orders is prohibited from having any firearms or ammunition in their custody or control while the order is in effect. If an order is issued to a respondent, it is usually held for up to a year. According to a study from University of California, Davis, California’s red flag law has been used to deter 58 potential mass shootings.
Connecticut was the first state in the country to enact a red flag law in 1999 in response to a mass shooting at the Connecticut Lottery. However, not many other states caught on; until 2018, only five other states had passed red flag laws. Soon after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, other states began following suit. As of this year, 21 states have passed some form of a red flag law.
Some states allow for family members to go straight to judges to ask for a protective order. Under red flag laws, officers must present probable cause that the respondent is in a mental health crisis but do not need to give them a full assessment. Maine, an anomaly compared to other states, does not have one of these preventative measures. Despite permissive firearms laws and high rates of gun ownership, the state has low levels of violent crime.
Maine’s alternative to a red flag law is their yellow flag law. The standard of proof for the yellow flag law is significantly higher than a typical red flag law. Before they can even attempt to get a gun restriction, law enforcement officers must believe an individual is in a mental health crisis that makes them a risk to themself or others, and they must take that person into protective custody. Then, only after an assessment from a mental health provider can law enforcement ask a judge to order a weapons restriction.
Everytown for Gun Safety, a non-profit advocating for stricter gun regulations, are strong proponents of red flag laws. Chelsea Parsons, director of implementation, said that these laws “Provide a proactive opportunity to prevent tragedies, you don’t have to wait for somebody to commit a crime when there are clear warning signs that this person having access to firearms poses a clear risk.”
These laws are going to have to be adopted at the state level as the likelihood of a federal red flag law is extremely unlikely. Razor tight margins within the House and Senate make a consensus on these laws challenging, nor are they going to be a magical fix. Ideally, red flag laws, combined with stricter forms of gun control, would be the best way to address the constant loss of life these shootings cause.