Red flag laws get little use as shootings, gun deaths soar

Chicago is one of the nation’s gun violence hotspots and a seemingly ideal place to employ Illinois’ “red flag” law that allows police to step in and take firearms away from people who threaten to kill. But amid more than 8,500 shootings resulting in 1,800 deaths since 2020, the law was used there just four times.

It’s a pattern that’s played out in New Mexico, with nearly 600 gun homicides during that period and a mere eight uses of its red flag law. And in Massachusetts, with nearly 300 shooting homicides and just 12 uses of its law.

An Associated Press analysis found many U.S. states barely use the red flag laws touted as the most powerful tool to stop gun violence before it happens, a trend blamed on a lack of awareness of the laws and resistance by some authorities to enforce them even as shootings and gun deaths soar.

AP found such laws in 19 states and the District of Columbia were used to remove firearms from people 15,049 times since 2020, fewer than 10 per 100,000 adult residents. Experts called that woefully low and not nearly enough to make a dent in gun violence, considering the millions of firearms in circulation and countless potential warning signs law enforcement officers encounter from gun owners every day.

Red flag laws get little use as shootings, gun deaths soar

FILE – A Lake Forest, Ill., police officer walks down Central Ave in Highland Park, Ill., on Monday, July 4, 2022, after a shooter fired on the Chicago northern suburb’s Fourth of July parade. Chicago is one of the nation’s gun violence hotspots and a seemingly ideal place to employ Illinois’ “red flag” law that allows police to step in and take firearms away from people who threaten to kill. But amid more than 8,500 shootings resulting in 1,800 deaths since 2020, the law was used there just four times. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune via AP, File)

Chicago is one of the nation’s gun violence hotspots and a seemingly ideal place to employ Illinois’ “red flag” law that allows police to step in and take firearms away from people who threaten to kill. But amid more than 8,500 shootings resulting in 1,800 deaths since 2020, the law was used there just four times.

It’s a pattern that’s played out in New Mexico, with nearly 600 gun homicides during that period and a mere eight uses of its red flag law. And in Massachusetts, with nearly 300 shooting homicides and just 12 uses of its law.

An Associated Press analysis found many U.S. states barely use the red flag laws touted as the most powerful tool to stop gun violence before it happens, a trend blamed on a lack of awareness of the laws and resistance by some authorities to enforce them even as shootings and gun deaths soar.

AP found such laws in 19 states and the District of Columbia were used to remove firearms from people 15,049 times since 2020, fewer than 10 per 100,000 adult residents. Experts called that woefully low and not nearly enough to make a dent in gun violence, considering the millions of firearms in circulation and countless potential warning signs law enforcement officers encounter from gun owners every da

“It’s too small a pebble to make a ripple,” Duke University sociologist Jeffrey Swanson, who has studied red flag gun surrender orders across the nation, said of the AP tally. “It’s as if the law doesn’t exist.”

“The number of people we are catching with red flags is likely infinitesimal,” added Indiana University law professor Jody Madeira, who like other experts who reviewed AP’s findings wouldn’t speculate how many red flag removal orders would be necessary to make a difference.

The search for solutions comes amid a string of mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, Uvalde, Texas, and Highland Park, Illinois, and a spike in gun violence not seen in decades: 27,000 deaths so far this year, following 45,000 deaths each of the past two years.

Gun surrender orders per 100,000 adults

More than 15,000 court-ordered surrenders in 19 states and D.C. since 2020.

STATETOTALRATE
Fla.5,87233.633.633.6Wash.4197.17.17.1
Del.13725.225.225.2Vt.305.75.75.7
Md.90318.818.818.8Va.2824.24.24.2
Conn.52418.218.218.2Colo.1513.33.33.3
Ind.64512.412.412.4D.C.151.91.91.9
N.J.87712.112.112.1Ill.1541.61.61.6
Calif.3,19710.510.510.5N.M.80.50.50.5
N.Y.1,4429.29.29.2Nev.110.40.40.4
R.I.798.98.98.9Mass.120.20.20.2
Ore.2908.68.68.6Hawaii10.10.10.1

Orders in New Mexico start May 2020; Virginia, July 2020 when their laws took effect. Illinois figures double count in some years because of a change in how it classified orders. Indiana tracks just long-term orders. Washington did not break out emergency orders for two years and so those are based on estimates. Vermont’s 2020 figure reflects only long-term orders.

AP’s count, compiled from inquiries and Freedom of Information Law requests, showed wide disparities in how the laws were applied from state to state, county to county, most without regard to population or crime rates.

Florida led with 5,800 such orders, or 34 per 100,000 adult residents, but that is due mostly to aggressive enforcement in a few counties that don’t include Miami-Dade and others with more gun killings. More than a quarter of Illinois’ slim 154 orders came from one suburban county that makes up just 7% of the state’s population. California had 3,197 orders but was working through a backlog of three times that number of people barred from owning guns under a variety of measures who had not yet surrendered them.

And a national movement among politicians and sheriffs that has declared nearly 2,000 counties as “Second Amendment Sanctuaries,” opposing laws that infringe on gun rights, may have affected red flag enforcement in several states. In Colorado, 37 counties that consider themselves “sanctuaries” issued just 45 surrender orders in the two years through last year, a fifth fewer than non-sanctuary counties did per resident. New Mexico and Nevada reported only about 20 orders combined.

“The law shouldn’t even be there in the first place,” argued Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff who heads the pro-gun Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. “You’re taking away someone’s property and means of self-defense.”

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