Endless mass shootings underscore the need for robust red-flag laws

Another mass shooting with multiple deaths. Another mass shooter with mental illness. In the U.S., this is known as “Monday.”

A gunman killed three and shot several others, including police officers, on a Monday rampage in Farmington, New Mexico. People close to the shooter said he had mental health problems. A friend revealed the shooter heard voices and would talk to people who weren’t there.

Just over a week prior, a separate gunman killed eight, including three children, outside Dallas. He was reportedly terminated by the Army shortly after he enlisted in 2008 due to his poor mental health. He frequently posted about his mental problems, which he said were beyond repair.

According to one database, there have been 22 mass shootings that have caused at least 115 deaths so far this year, which is on track to be the deadliest on record.

The common denominator of recent mass shooters: significant mental illness. To keep guns out of the hands of such unstable individuals and protect innocent lives, bipartisan “red flag” laws should be expanded and strengthened. Red flag laws, present in 19 states, including California, allow law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily confiscate and ban guns from people whose actions or words indicate they are a danger to themselves or others.

Under federal law, people who are “mentally defective” — defined as those involuntarily committed or deemed mentally incompetent by a government body — are already forbidden from owning or purchasing guns. Stronger red flag laws can expand this safeguard to those with significant mental illness.

According to one count, at least 67 out of 142 major mass shootings in the U.S. since 1982 were perpetrated by someone with mental illness. Anecdotal evidence suggests the share is far higher. Looking at the most deadly recent mass shootings indicates the shooter had mental health problems in almost every instance.

For example, last year’s Ulvalde school shooter had repeatedly cut up his face with knives “for fun” and rode around with a dead cat in a plastic bag. Last month’s Louisville bank shooter left a note revealing part of his motive was to show how easy it is for the mentally ill to access guns. The list goes on and on.

Are we really so politically polarized that we disagree about whether such wackos should get guns? If you are hearing voices, cutting yourself, torturing animals, schizophrenic, or have severe PTSD, you should lose access to weapons even if you haven’t made an explicit threat to warrant a red flag intervention under existing law.

Humans have inalienable rights, granted by our nature (or God), to life, liberty, and our property. Among these is the right to self-defense to protect all others. The Second Amendment enshrines this right, preserving our ability to keep and bear arms.

Yet this right isn’t absolute. Some people, such as children, felons, and illegal immigrants, have limited rights based on their circumstances or actions. Same story for those with significant mental illness. Like children, the mentally incompetent don’t have the capacity to fully exercise their natural rights.

Red flag success and expansion

Consider the red flag success in one courtroom in Florida, where in the span of two months, a judge responded to petitions related to a father promising to “shoot everyone” at his son’s school, a suicidal woman who accidentally shot her boyfriend, a man who shot off multiple rounds to “blow off steam,” and a mother brandishing a gun following an argument. The law has been used around 10,000 times since the state adopted it in 2018.

In San Diego County, red flag orders have been issued more than 1,000 times over the past five years, including for a 21-year-old who posted a “RIP” message to students at his former school on social media with a photo of himself holding an AR-15.

Research by professors at Michigan State University and Johns Hopkins finds 9.5% of red-flag orders are for mass-shooting threats. Red flag laws also stop suicides. A Duke University study estimates that for every 10 to 20 successful red flag petitions, a suicide is stopped. A University of Indianapolis analysis came to a similar conclusion.

To protect more people, the 31 states without red flag laws should adopt them. Three reforms can also make red flag laws more effective:

Expand criteria to those with significant mental illness or extreme antisocial behavior.
Expand petition criteria from law enforcement to all close contacts, including family, romantic partners, roommates, employers and coworkers, doctors, and faith leaders. (Some states, including California, already have expanded petition criteria.)
Engage in public relations campaigns to inform ordinary Americans about red flag laws in an effort to make them the default response to mental breakdowns and violent threats.

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Would robust red flag laws stop all mass shooters from getting guns? Of course not. Some would acquire them illegally to commit their heinous acts. Others would use their vehicles to mow people down. But just because red flag laws won’t stop everything isn’t a justification for doing nothing.

We also don’t want to stigmatize the neuroatypical. Just because most mass shooters have a significant mental illness doesn’t mean that most people with mental illness are mass shooters. Yet neither are children, felons, or illegal immigrants. But the law recognizes they don’t have a right to guns. Part of getting help for severe mental health problems should be (at least temporarily) turning over your weapons.

Expanded red flag laws aren’t a silver bullet. Legitimate due process and slippery slope concerns exist. But on the fundamental question — should the significantly mentally ill have guns? — legal logic and basic commonsense align. Expanded red flag laws are the best vehicle to put this protection principle into practice and reduce mass shootings.

Jordan Bruneau is a political writer in Los Angeles.
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