We need pragmatic red flag laws that empower individuals, not the government

Sunday, August 11, 2019
By Paul Martin

by Kaylee McGhee
August 10, 2019

Last week’s deadly shootings left a hurting country looking for answers and solutions. One of the options President Trump and others on the Right are considering is some kind of red-flag law: a loosely defined form of preventative measure used to catch the early warning signs and disarm likely perps before they go into action.

This is a good, pragmatic step toward much-needed reform. But it has raised concerns among gun-rights advocates, with good reason. Red flag laws, if not properly drafted, implemented or enforced, could easily lead to abuses that violate both the right to due process and the right to bear arms.

Take, for example, Colorado’s red flag law, which allows law enforcement and family members to petition courts to temporarily take guns away from individuals deemed a threat to themselves or others. The key words being “law enforcement.” Giving any kind of government entity — even the ones created to protect us — this kind of power invites all kind of trouble. It isn’t the government’s job to step in and monitor citizens’ everyday lives to detect red flags. But it is the community’s job.

Almost all mass shooters display warning signs before committing acts of violence. According to a 2018 FBI report, 40% of shooters receive a psychiatric diagnosis before their crime, and 70% display “mental health stressors” or “mental health concerning behaviors” before the attack. Just a few months ago, the U.S. Secret Service found that 67% of violent attackers displayed symptoms of “mental illness or emotional disturbance.” In 93% of the incidents, authorities found that these attackers had a “history of threats or other troubling communications.”

Red flags are the norm, not the exception, and they’re usually detected by those closest to troubled individuals, like friends and family. Law enforcement should act only after community members provide evidence of violent behavior or mental unfitness. Once they do, and a judge determines the evidence is sufficient, law enforcement should be given authority to act quickly.

A red flag law that guarantees this kind of process would prevent and protect, without violating rights unduly. We now know the mother of the El Paso shooter called the Allen, Texas, Police Department just weeks before the shooting because she was concerned about her son owning a firearm. A public safety officer told her that because her son was 21 years old and legally allowed to purchase and own a weapon, they could do nothing.

The Dayton shooter’s former classmates said he had a deep interest in violence and kept a “hit list” of people he wanted to kill or rape. One of his former classmates said he and another peer called the police years ago to warn them about the “kill list.” The result was a temporary expulsion from high school and a brief investigation.

These young men were unwell and violent, and those close to them knew it. But even once these red flags were brought to law enforcement’s attention, the police’s hands were tied. Had there been a legal mechanism in place that guaranteed additional supervision and restricted access to weapons, innocent lives might have been spared.

Red flag laws aren’t foolproof. Evil people who want to hurt others will find a way to do so. The Sandy Hook shooter, barred from purchasing guns by a failed background check, killed his own mother and stole hers instead.

We’ll never be rid of the threat, no matter how hard we try. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to prevent it when we can.

Prevention does work. Just last week, the FBI arrested and charged a man who reportedly planned another domestic terrorist attack in Missouri. After receiving a tip that the man had posted a “hunting guide” targeting Jews, Muslims, and refugee centers online, the FBI began monitoring him. They arrested him on charges of child pornography possession, and a search through his phone revealed videos of the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand and notes on how to make homemade C4 explosives.

There’s too much at stake to sit by and do nothing. Trump and the GOP should advocate for practical red flag laws that empower individuals and encourage the community to be on guard and vigilant, while bolstering law enforcement’s ability to act when need be. A well-drafted law will create strict definitions of what does and does not qualify as mental unfitness, require substantial evidence of mental unfitness and/or violence, and allow the individual in question to appeal any red-flag designation.

This problem isn’t going to go away. We know the patterns of mass killers. So, let’s do something about it.

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