SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Trying to stop tragedies before they occur, 19 states and Washington DC have passed 'red flag' laws. While they vary in each state, the law provides a legal mechanism to temporarily remove firearms and ammunition from people at risk of harming themselves or others.
But as more states adopt these laws, a new report highlights the challenges of rolling them out.
"It's an intuitive law, removing firearms from a high-risk situation in this temporary way so that the person who's at risk can get help or can cool down, whatever needs to happen," said Veronica Pear, an assistant professor at the Violence Prevention Research Program (VPRP) at the University of California, Davis.
In California, family, household members, employers, certain coworkers, and school staff, and law enforcement can ask a judge to temporarily remove guns from a person likely to hurt themselves or others.
California's Gun Violence Restraining Order (GVRO) law was passed in 2014 after a 22-year-old man killed six people near the University of California, Santa Barbara. Weeks before, his mother warned authorities of disturbing videos her son had posted online.
The law went into effect in January 2016 and was expanded in 2020 to allow certain teachers, school employees, co-workers, and employers to seek a gun violence restraining order.
"Looking county by county at the number of orders issued, we were surprised to see over the first few years, and by county, just how slow it was," said Pear.
Pear says the law was rarely used after going into effect in 2016.
"Laws don't implement themselves," said Pear. "Officers, and others involved with implementation, just didn't know about what this law was, that it even was on the books."
The research team interviewed 27 key informants involved in GVRO implementation, including judges, city or district attorneys, law enforcement officers, policy experts, and firearm violence prevention advocates.
The report points to a lack of funding to support local implementation efforts and no centralized guidance, noting some exceptions.
City Attorney Mara Elliott worked with law enforcement agencies and judicial officers to create an integrated process for GVRO implementation in San Diego, resulting in increased uptake of the law.
"What we've encountered could be somebody going through a bad break-up, or they just lost their job, or their neighbor is driving them crazy," said Elliott.
A UC Santa Barbara alumni, Elliott felt personally motivated to reduce gun violence in her city.
"It really is a crisis intervention tool. That person is not being punished, they're not going to jail, they're not going to get fined. They're being given an opportunity to get help," said Elliott. "We also want the public to trust the process, so we thoroughly vet these cases before we proceed with them."
Since the inception of San Diego's GVRO program in 2017, police have confiscated more than 1,000 guns. According to Elliott's office:
- 1/3 of all cases relate to threats by intimate partners, former partners, and family members
- 1/3 relate to threats of self-harm
- The remaining cases include threats to neighbors, strangers, acquaintances, co-workers and schools
San Diego's program is now receiving state funding to help replicate the model in other California cities.
"They've been implementing more than anyone else in the state, and I think that has a lot to do with that local leader, the local champion of the law, and having this sort of top-down support for it," said Pear.
As states implement their own red flag laws, Pear suggests they create a plan of action beforehand and designate funding for training.
"It was that feeling of helplessness and that there is just nothing we can do and there is no safe place to go," said Elliott. "And now, in San Diego, there is."
A wave of states passed red flag laws after the 2018 Parkland High mass shooting, including Florida, which only allows law enforcement to ask a judge to remove someone's guns. Within three years of the law passing in the state, more than 3,500 risk protection orders were granted by a judge.
However, efforts to pass red flag laws are stalled in places like Michigan, where some counties are declaring themselves Second Amendment Sanctuaries. Critics of the law worry it can be abused or that it violates constitutional rights.
In some states, there are penalties for those who make maliciously false accusations.