'Red flag laws' offer tool for preventing some gun violence

FILE - In this Sept. 25, 2017 file photo, Connie Robinson, left, hugs her daughter Kayla Compton, both members of Burnette Chapel Church of Christ, during a vigil for victims by Sunday's shooting at the church in Antioch, Tenn. A man charged in the shooting expressed suicidal thoughts in June according to police records. With bipartisan support in many cases, 17 states and Washington D.C. have now passed so-called “red flag laws” that allow the court-ordered removal of guns from people who are considered to be dangerous.

With the opening of the 2020 session of the Iowa Legislature still nearly five months away, it remains to be seen if Iowa will be added to the growing list of states that have adopted so-called “red flag” laws.

Often with bipartisan support, 17 states and Washington, D.C., have now passed red flag laws that allow the court-ordered removal of guns from people who are considered to be dangerous. Iowa remains one of 27 states that do not have such a law or active legislative action to enact one.

The back-to-back shootings that killed 31 people earlier this month in Texas and Ohio have given new momentum to proposals pending in several states along with a congressional plan that would encourage, through the provision of grant money, states to adopt such laws.

“The push back has always been the infringement on constitutional rights,” Iowa Rep. Vicki Lensing, D-Johnson County, told KWWL-TV in Cedar Rapids. Lensing was one of four sponsors of a red flag law that stalled in committee in the Iowa Legislature last January.

Speaking of the same pair of shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley said, “We as a society must be better equipped to recognize the warning signs that almost always precede acts of mass violence. Existing laws are supposed to prevent dangerous people from purchasing or possessing firearms, but we can do more to better protect our communities.

“I’ve also introduced legislation to improve how we identify people who are mentally unfit to possess a firearm. Red flag laws fall mainly within the jurisdiction of states, but I’d support a federal proposal so long as it contains strong due process safeguards.”

Though Connecticut passed the nation’s first red flag law in 1999, most of the current red flag laws are new, and research on their effectiveness is limited. A study published last year estimated that the two states with the longest-standing laws, Connecticut and Indiana, may have had 500 fewer gun suicides over a decade as a result of the measures. Another study estimated that Connecticut prevented one suicide for every 10 to 20 people subjected to gun seizures.

The Associated Press reported that a study published last week about California’s red flag law found 21 examples in which people who had threatened public shootings were successfully disarmed.

“I’m convinced that having this powerful tool gives our communities the ability to step in and prevent some tragedies from happening,” Maria Elliott, the city attorney in San Diego, told the AP. In that city alone, more than 300 gun violence restraining orders have been issued in less than two years.

Elliott said the orders have been used to protect people from “all walks of life,” including students, employees, intimate partners, parents and children. Those disarmed include a man who made online threats of a mass shooting at a gay bar, a man who told a family member he was going to kills Muslims and a man who made statements about guns and immigrants. To grant a final order under California’s law, a judge must find evidence that the person poses “significant danger.”

Clearly, red flag laws are not the final solution in preventing mass shootings. They are, however, showing themselves to be a beneficial tool in addressing that goal. Iowa lawmakers should, at minimum, seriously debate the merits of such a law during the next session.

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