Explained: What is a ‘red-flag’ law and can it help stop mass shootings in the US?

The United States House of Representatives on Thursday (June 9) passed a ‘red-flag’ bill aimed at barring those considered dangerous to themselves or others from possessing firearms.

The bill, which passed 224/202 largely along party lines, comes in light of two devastating mass shootings in the US that occurred in less than a fortnight. On May 24, a gunman killed 19 children and two school teachers in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. On May 12, 10 people were killed in racist attack in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York.

Currently, 19 US states, and also Washington DC, have these ‘red-flag’ laws in place. The latest push is to create a federal law of the same nature to check gun violence.

What are ‘red flag’ laws?

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The ‘extreme risk protection laws’, known informally as ‘red-flag’ laws, are among the possible solutions offered to tackle the endemic gun violence in the United States.

These laws allow courts to issue a special protection order which authorises the police to temporarily confiscate guns from people that display concerning behaviour, such as issuing threats of harm. If the judge determines them to be dangerous to themselves or others, they can be barred from possessing or purchasing new firearms. While police and other authorities can request the order, the New York Times reports that such requests often come from family or friends that are concerned that their loved one, who owns guns, has discussed shooting people or indicated suicidal thoughts.

The first ‘red-flag’ law was introduced in Connecticut in 1999, after a mass shooting occurred in the state the previous year. According to the New York Times, the shooter had previously displayed signs of emotional instability and was undergoing treatment for stress-related problems.

What is the federal ‘red-flag’ bill?

The current ‘red-flag’ bill passed on Thursday, called the ‘Federal Extreme Risk Protection Order’, was sponsored by the Democratic Representative of Georgia, Lucy Mcbath. She had personally suffered due to gun violence, when her teenage son, Jordan Davis was shot and killed in 2012, following an argument over loud music played by Davis.

As of now, Washington DC, and 19 states have introduced red flag laws. Before the 2018 Parkland, Florida school shooting, where 17 people were killed, only 5 states had laws like this, as reported by The New York Times.

A look at the mass shootings in the US.

There are also ongoing bipartisan discussions in Washington to grant financial incentives to other states to pass similar laws.

Do these laws work in controlling gun violence?

Those that participate in mass shootings frequently display warning signs before the events, and supporters of ‘red-flag’ laws argue that such measures would have been able to stop the perpetrators from accessing deadly weapons before the shootings occurred.

After the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida passed a gun control law that among other measures also introduced a red-flag law. Judges in Florida have issued emergency risk orders against people deemed dangerous more than 8,000 times, according to data collected by the Office of the State Courts Administrator that was cited by CNN.

According to data collected by CBS News, while ‘red-flags’ laws are able to check shootings, it also depends on how frequently and how stringently each state chooses to implement it. The mere existence of such laws does not necessarily translate to effectiveness in gun control.

Illinois for example has been criticized for not properly implementing their 2019 ‘red-flag’ law, despite having the third highest number of school shootings in the country. Based on the court data obtained by CBS News, only 88 such orders were issued in the state between 2020 and 2021.

The mass shooting in Buffalo (New York) in May, also pointed to the lack of enforcement of the law.

In 2019, New York introduced a ‘red- flag’ law across the state and a deadly mass shooting still occurred in 2022. The shooter had allegedly issued threats of violence and was also referred to a mental health professional. Despite this, the police did not invoke the ‘red-flag’ law against him.

Calling Buffalo a textbook case of the underutilized ‘red-flag’ laws, John Fienblatt of the non-profit Everytown for Gun Safety told CBS News, “It was not the failure of the law. It was the failure of the implementation of the law,”

What happens next?

If the Federal Extreme Risk Protection Order is approved by the Senate, then it would apply across the country.

For a bill to be passed in the US, it needs to first pass by simple majority in the House of Representatives (lower house). It then needs to be passed by the United States Senate (upper house). After ironing out any differences that might exist between the Senate and House versions of the bill, it is then approved.

Although this legislation is relatively modest and only seeks to take away guns from those deemed dangerous, it faces a tough Senate test. While in the lower house, Democrats currently hold 220 seats and Republicans have 208, in the upper house, Republicans have 50 seats to the Democrats 48 (2 Independents).

In an evenly divided Senate, which contains a solid Republican opposition, the bill will in all likelihood not draw the 60 votes for it to advance, as reported by New York Times.

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While some Republicans have voiced support for the ‘red-flag’ law, the party view is that the “overly broad language” in the bill supposedly restricts the Second Amendment.

The Republican Party has for long defended the right of Americans to own and possess guns, as per the Second Amendment of the US Constitution which protects the right of an individual to keep and bear arms. Many in the party have argued that the measures can be abused and stop an innocent person’s fundamental right to own firearms.


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