It’s a tragically familiar scenario: A gunman kills multiple innocent civilians in a shooting spree, reigniting a national debate about gun violence legislation. The policy debate invariably ends in stasis, as political forces on both sides of the aisle fail to reach a compromise.
The twin tragedies of Dayton and El Paso, however, have given rise to the possibility of a breakthrough. A bipartisan proposal that would encourage states to adopt “red flag” laws to take guns away from people believed to be dangers to themselves is gaining momentum in the Senate. Offered by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the plan has received support from President Trump, who said in a White House speech that those judged to pose a grave risk to society should be denied access to firearms. Red flag laws authorize courts to issue protection orders that allow police to confiscate firearms from such people, as well as prohibiting them from buying new guns.
Gains on State Level
In the wake of last year’s mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, the number of states with red flag laws has jumped from just five to 17. One of those states is California, whose law was enacted following a massacre at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2014. California permits family members to petition courts directly for confiscation orders. A law recently passed in New York would allow teachers to petition the courts, as well.
The Graham-Blumenthal proposal would incentivize state red flag laws by offering states grants for passing them. Significantly, though, the bill would not limit gun access at the federal level, which could be the key to its bipartisan appeal. Republican senators normally predisposed against gun legislation are more likely to view favorably a measure that yields gun policy making to individual states.
Senate Democrats are largely united behind red flag laws, but a growing number of Republicans are joining them. Senate Majority Whip John Thune (S.D.) has spoken optimistically about reaching bipartisan consensus on the issue, but eyes remained focused on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kent.), who has not publicly taken a position on red flag laws.
The National Rifle Association has voiced support for the goal of keeping guns away from dangerous people but has largely opposed state red flags until recently. Citing threats to due process, the organization has objected to the confiscation of guns from people who have not committed crimes and may lose their guns without having a chance to be heard. But the Parkland shooting has led to a change in the NRA’s tone, as they have begun to signal more openness toward such laws.
The success of red flag laws depends not just on their passage, but on their implementation and on key details, such as who is allowed to file petitions. Also, the matter of how law enforcement officials educate the public about pursuing such emergency legal options can tremendously impact their effectiveness.
But even as other gun measures, like expanded background checks, closing gun show loopholes, and an assault weapons ban once again come into focus, the red flag proposal stands the greatest chance of gaining political currency. With bipartisan support growing in Congress and President Trump appearing to back the idea, the moment for forward progress toward reasonable gun legislation may soon be arriving.
Eric Fusfield, Esq. has been B’nai B’rith International’s director of legislative affairs since 2003 and deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy since 2007. He holds a B.A. from Columbia University in history; an M.St. in modern Jewish studies from Oxford University; and a J.D./M.A. from American University in law and international affairs. Click here to read more from Eric Fusfield.
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