State Watch

‘Red flag’ laws gain steam after Florida shooting

Support for “red flag” laws intended to keep guns from criminals and the mentally ill is growing following the shooting deaths of 17 students and faculty members at a Florida high school.

Allies of the National Rifle Association (NRA) say they’re willing to back various versions of the laws, arguing they would reduce the likelihood of mass shootings.


Some versions of the red flag laws would prohibit gun ownership by those convicted of domestic violence or subject to a restraining order. Others specifically ban gun ownership for those who have been involuntarily committed to a hospital because of mental health reasons.

“We as a society need to agree that shootings like this at schools are unacceptable and it does require action,” said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a staunch gun rights supporter. “One way that you stop disasters like this from happening is by responding and doing something about people who are demonstrated to be dangerous.”

As of Monday, five states currently have red flag laws on the books.

California passed the first such laws after a mass shooting at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Washington voters approved a ballot measure implementing the laws in 2016, and Oregon, Connecticut and Indiana also have laws in place.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) signed an executive order on Monday allowing law enforcement officers to take firearms away from those deemed a danger to themselves or others.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) plans to sign a measure expanding her state’s red flag laws to include preventing stalkers and those convicted of domestic violence from gun possession when the bill arrives on her desk next week.

Eighteen other states, including Florida, are considering some version of a red flag measure. Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) last week laid out a raft of proposals to deal with the epidemic of gun violence that has swept the nation, including measures intended to keep the mentally ill from obtaining guns.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), who signed stricter background checks into law in 2014, said the Parkland shooting could represent a significant change in the national debate over gun control.

“I think change occurs generally through increments, until you hit a tipping point in which change happens rapidly, and we may be there,” Hickenlooper told The Hill. “Somehow there’s got to be a pathway by which Republicans can be convinced that maybe not all teenagers should be able to buy assault weapons. That’s a good place to start.”

Advocates of stricter gun control measures say the red flag laws are a step toward curbing mass shootings, like the one at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.. Those advocates also said red flag laws have been shown to reduce suicides, by far the most common cause of gun deaths in America.

“Had this been in effect in Florida, it could have been very useful to that family who knew [accused shooter Nikolas Cruz] was dangerous,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of the gun violence prevention group Moms Demand Action. 

Abbott said he was particularly interested in separate pieces of legislation proposed by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that would strengthen the federal background check system. He said both the shooter in Parkland, Fla., and a gunman who killed 26 people last year at a church in rural Sutherland Springs, Texas, would have been barred by red flag laws from getting weapons.

“We as a society need to be responsive to this,” he said in an interview Sunday. “We need to be able to allow law enforcement to act on this and to report this information to a database that would prevent these people from being able to get a gun.”

The NRA is no fan of red flag laws. The group’s chief lobbyist in Florida came out against Scott’s proposed reform measures, which also included raising the legal age for buying any gun in his state to 21. The NRA also opposes the Oregon law that Brown intends to sign next week.

“This expansion would go well beyond existing state and federal law,” the NRA said in a call to action opposing the Oregon measure earlier this month. “This legislation was filed at the request of Bloomberg-supported Gov. Kate Brown, who accepted a quarter of a million dollars from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg during her election in 2016. It is no surprise that she is again pushing new gun restrictions for 2018 as she heads into her reelection campaign.”

In a statement to The Hill, the group said that it could not comment on specific legislation without seeing legislative language.

“The NRA supports keeping firearms out of the hands of dangerously mentally ill people. But we can’t comment on specific legislation until we see the language,” said Jennifer Baker, an NRA spokeswoman.

There is hardly a national consensus on red flag laws, even after the Florida shooting. In an interview, Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) said decisions about how to handle gun policy and mental health are best left up to local governments.

“This is not a Washington one-and-done thing. These are local solutions,” Colyer said. But, he added: “I think we all have an onus to do things” to prevent future shootings.

Tags California Colorado Connecticut Firearms Florida Gun control John Cornyn Mass shooting National Rifle Association Oregon red flag laws Rhode Island Stoneman Douglas High School shooting Ted Cruz

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