By Ola Szczesna, Research and Policy Director, Massachusetts Parents United
The mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida involved one unstable individual who used a legally purchased AR-15 rifle to shoot and kill 14 high school students and 3 staff members. Headlines across the country described the events of the tragic shooting, once again making the nation feel sorrow and helplessness.
As a result, Massachusetts Representative Marjorie C. Decker (D) proposed a Red Flag bill (H3610) that is currently pending in the House Ways and Means Committee.
So, what is this bill about? What’s the red flag? And why are so many people talking about it?
Red Flag legislation is a gun safety policy in which family members or law enforcement officials would have the authority to request an Extreme Risk Protection Order, or ERPO, for an individual they believe is a danger to themselves or others, temporarily restricting their access to firearms. In other words, individuals would have the ability to mark someone they know with a “red flag” through a Court order by providing ample evidence that the individual is unfit to have access to a gun.
This sounds fairly reasonable, given how prevalent mass shootings have become in the US and how many gun deaths occur in our country each year.
How does ERPO technically work?
The way the bill is currently written for Massachusetts, an ERPO can be filed by “a family or household member of the respondent or a law enforcement officer or agency having jurisdiction over the respondent’s residence.” Within 14 days of filing the ERPO, the Court will set a hearing date.
If the Court finds enough evidence to deem the individual as being in danger of causing personal injury to self or others, the Court will issue an ERPO, meaning the dangerous individual is prohibited from purchasing or possessing a firearm for one year. After the first year, the ERPO can be renewed.
What’s important to note here is that there must be sufficient evidence presented in order for an ERPO to be issued, preventing this from becoming an arbitrary tool abused by people who base their claims on faulty or unjustified reasoning.
Recently, the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association declared their support of the legislation, calling it a tool for closing “dangerous loopholes” that affect public safety. They also stated that the bill will empower law enforcement to use their judgement in identifying people who have demonstrated they should not be trusted with firearms.
If the point is to prevent shootings before they happen, than we need to equip law enforcement with a measure that allows them to remove guns from the wrong hands, until that individual can demonstrate that they are not a threat to cause harm.
Do Red Flag laws even work?
Prior to the Parkland shooting, five states already had some version of Red Flag legislation in place. Studies on the benefits of Red Flag legislation show lower rates of gun inflicted suicide and homicide. Red flag laws also provide law enforcement enough tools to intervene, remove guns from individuals seen as threats, and stop a tragedy before it is the next to make a headline.
On the other hand, critics of red flag legislation talk about infringement of civil liberties, and the dangers of setting a precedent for coercive measures being taken against individuals because they might, someday commit a crime although they may not have done so to date (based on the statement from the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island).
Any “gun safety” or “gun control” bill creates controversy, particularly for those who have conservative views on gun ownership and support the NRA. The mere mention of gun control creates a panic for the GOP, as they realize this a core issue for their base and one they win on at the ballot box.
But there are policies that have strong bipartisan support, such as preventing the mentally ill from purchasing guns, barring gun purchases from people on no fly or watch lists, and background checks for private sales and at gun shows (Pew Research Center). Many believe that passing a Red Flag law is also a common sense solution that draws support from both sides of the aisle.
While there is typically a lot of talk about gun control after mass shootings with no action taken, the Parkland shooting has drawn significant attention to red flag legislation, on top of invoking marches and protests worldwide. Directly after the shooting, Florida quickly became the 6th state to pass Red Flag legislation.
Vermont was next, passing Red Flag legislation after a near incident only one day after the Parkland shooting in Florida, when Vermont police arrested an 18-year-old male who plotted a mass murder at Fair Haven Union High School in Rutland County. This finding was reason enough to convince Vermont’s Governor, Phil Scott (R), to support the legislation although he had previously opposed any gun control laws.
Similar bills are now pending in 15 other states for the same efforts. While this is a step in the right direction, much more needs to be done to prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands.
For Massachusetts Parents United, we know the safety of children, families, and individuals ultimately IS more important than the right of a potentially harmful individual to own a gun.
We know that we’re at the point in society where it isn’t enough to play defense.
We need to play offense, take preventative measures to stop school shootings from make headlines, and prevent the pain that families suffer before our children don’t make it home.