One year ago, gun violence prevention was still a taboo topic for many state and federal legislators. Some would dodge questions about gun policy. Some would decline to support any legislation regarding guns.
But since the tragic Valentine’s Day shooting in Parkland, Fla attitudes have changed. We’ve seen progress. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle have begun to recognize that the American people are demanding evidence-based policies to keep guns away from dangerous individuals. One such policy is the "extreme risk" law, which is now in effect in 13 states — and is being considered in several more.
"Extreme risk" laws — sometimes referred to as “red flag laws” — are based on a simple concept: those close to an individual can recognize the warning signs preceding dangerous behavior. Indeed, prior to numerous mass shootings, those close to the shooter recognized unusual, dangerous behavior but did not have the tools to take action. "extreme risk" laws provide individuals with those tools. These laws allow family members and law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily remove guns from at-risk individuals and prevent them from purchasing additional guns.
Using "extreme risk" laws, concerned relatives can get help for a family member who is descending into crisis for any reason — whether the individual is abusing substances, struggling with significant life stressors, or demonstrating suicidal behavior. By reducing at-risk individuals’ access to firearms, these laws decrease the likelihood of both gun homicide and suicide. A study on Connecticut’s "extreme risk" law found that for every 10-20 warrants issued, an estimated one life is saved.
"Extreme risk" laws are unique in that the criteria for issuance are evidence-based risk factors for dangerousness, such as past threats or acts of violence. Notably, these criteria do not include a diagnosis of mental illness, as evidence shows that mental illness is not a significant risk factor for interpersonal violence.
Mental illness does, however, increase an individual’s risk of suicide, and "extreme risk" laws serve as a powerful suicide prevention tool for those at risk of harming themselves. Approximately nine out of ten firearm suicide attempts result in death, and temporarily removing firearms from individuals during a suicidal crisis decreases the likelihood that they will die by suicide.
By allowing family to remove guns from a loved one in crisis, "extreme risk" laws increase the likelihood that the individual will survive and seek needed treatment — in a Connecticut study, nearly one-third of respondents received critical mental health and substance abuse treatment as a result of the "extreme risk" law intervention.
These laws are gaining steam among policymakers and advocates across the political spectrum. "extreme risk" laws have been signed by numerous Republican governors. The states in which these laws exist or are being considered are not all blue. Some are deep red.
There is strong bipartisan interest in this legislation; in response to this interest, several gun violence prevention groups — the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, Giffords, and the Alliance for Gun Responsibility — have launched a state legislative toolkit to help enact and implement "extreme risk" laws across the country.
The toolkit aims to reach advocates and legislators alike. We have made significant strides in less than one year. Eight states have passed "extreme risk" laws since the shooting in Parkland. More Americans favor stronger gun laws than oppose them. We know gun violence prevention is a popular topic.
We know it is a winning issue. Now it is up to us — citizens, advocates, policymakers — to continue to push for evidence-based policy at the federal level and in all 50 states. "extreme risk" laws are a good place to start.
Vicka Chaplin is the Director of Public Health Programs at the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence.