Expert Commentary

Can red flag laws curb gun violence? Here’s what the research says.

There is research suggesting red flag laws are effective in preventing suicides, along with a small but growing body of research on red flag laws and mass shootings.

red flag laws
(C. G. / Unsplash)

This article about red flag laws, originally published on Aug. 13, 2019, was updated on Nov. 30, 2022 to reflect recent policy changes and new research findings.

Five people were killed and 18 were injured on Nov. 19 when a shooter began firing in Club Q, an LGBTQ club in Colorado Springs, before patrons stopped the attacker.

Colorado is one of 19 states, along with the District of Columbia, that have extreme risk protection order, or red flag laws. These laws allow courts, through due process, to temporarily take firearms from people whom family, friends, police officers or others report as potentially dangerous to themselves or others.

Colorado’s red flag law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. A police officer, relative or roommate in the state can initiate the process of temporarily removing someone’s firearms if that person threatens violence.

In 2021, the person accused of the Club Q attack was arrested on felony menacing and kidnapping charges in El Paso County. Those charges were dropped.

“We’re certainly going to take a hard look at why [the] red flag law wasn’t used in this case,” Gov. Jared Polis told Meet the Press on Nov. 27, referring to the Club Q shooting. Polis has also said he wants to see Colorado’s red flag law expanded, so district attorneys and others can use it.

This is not the first time red flag laws have entered the national conversation. Researchers raised red flag laws as one piece of the puzzle toward reducing gun violence following a mass shooting in May at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. Other massacres have brought the laws national media attention, including a Nov. 13 shooting that left three University of Virginia football players dead and a shooting at a Walmart in Chesapeake, Virginia that killed 6 people on Nov. 22. Virginia joined Colorado in 2020 as the states that have most recently passed red flag laws.

Colorado Springs is in El Paso County, which has one of the lowest county-level red flag order approval rates in the state, according to an investigation from Denver-based NBC News affiliate KUSA-TV. In 2019, in anticipation of Polis signing the state red flag law, local officials declared El Paso County a “Second Amendment sanctuary” making it one of 37 Colorado counties, out of 64 total counties, that passed resolutions saying they would not enforce the law. A county sheriff who refused to enforce a red flag order could be held in contempt of court, according to the KUSA-TV investigation.

Research indicates the “sanctuary” resolutions may have had a chilling effect on red flag orders being filed. In 2020, the first full year the Colorado law went into effect there were 109 extreme risk protection order petitions filed statewide, according to a paper, “Colorado’s First Year of Extreme Risk Protection Orders,” published in October 2021 in the journal Injury Epidemiology. That works out to about 1.5 extreme risk protection orders filed per 100,000 people in “sanctuary” counties, compared with 2 orders filed per 100,000 people in non-sanctuary counties, according to the research.

A flood of states passed red flag laws after a former student shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February 2018. In August 2019, after shooters in separate incidents killed a combined 31 people in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas, then-President Donald Trump reiterated his call for states to pass red flag laws. Federal gun safety legislation President Joe Biden signed in June 2022 — after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas that killed 19 children and two adults — includes $750 million for states to run red flag and other intervention programs.

Red flag laws and mass shootings

There is a lack of federally funded, national research on gun violence because Congress in 1996 passed legislation prohibiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using funds to “advocate or promote gun control.”

As Drs. Arthur Kellermann and Frederick Rivara explain in a 2013 Journal of the American Medical Association retrospective essay on government efforts to curtail gun violence research: “Precisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear. But no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency’s funding to find out.”

While there is not an overwhelming amount of research on whether red flag laws can prevent mass shootings, there are some recent papers on the topic.

An October 2022 paper, “Extreme risk protection orders in response to threats of multiple victim/mass shooting in six U.S. states,” in the journal Preventive Medicine provides an overview of how often extreme risk protection orders stem from a threat involving multiple victims.

In California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland and Washington, 10% of 6,787 red flag cases through June 2020 were filed in response to a threat against at least 3 people, the authors find. The start date varied depending on when a state’s red flag law went into effect. Connecticut had the earliest start date, Jan. 1, 2013. Among threats made against at least 3 people, intimate partners along with their friends or family were threatened in 15% of those cases, while 20% of threats were made toward K-12 schools.

“Even if only a small percentage of these cases would have been acted upon, their prevention would have a consequential impact resulting in lives saved,” the authors write.

In other recent research on whether red flag laws counter mass shootings — “Extreme Risk Protection Orders Intended to Prevent Mass Shootings,” published in November 2019 in the Annals of Internal Medicine — the authors review 159 red flag law cases in California. They identify 21 cases in which a judicial officer issued a firearm restraining order after a person who would soon have access to guns declared or indicated they were going to commit a mass shooting.

The authors caution against drawing a causal relationship between red flag laws and preventing mass shootings, but they conclude that “the cases suggest that this urgent, individualized intervention can play a role in efforts to prevent mass shootings, in health care settings and elsewhere.”

And an April 2019 paper, “Are the Deadliest Mass Shootings Preventable?” in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice finds that among the 15 deadliest mass shootings in the U.S. from March 1998 to February 2018, the attackers hinted at violence before committing the acts.

“Even in the unusual cases where the offenders’ violent intentions were apparently unknown (the DC Navy Yard and Las Vegas shootings), the individuals had admitted struggling with mental health problems and shown other reasons for concern,” the authors write.

If you know of other recent research on red flag laws and mass shootings, let us know.

Red flag laws associated with fewer suicides

Research is more extensive on the association between red flag laws and lower suicide rates. One study published in Psychiatric Services in 2018 looks at how red flag laws affected suicide rates in Connecticut and Indiana. Nationally, more than half of gun deaths are suicides, according to 2020 data from the CDC.

Connecticut passed the nation’s first red flag law in 1999. But the law wasn’t strongly enforced until after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in April 2007, according to the Psychiatric Services paper’s authors, Aaron Kivisto and Peter Phalen of the University of Indianapolis. Indiana’s law was enforced immediately after the state legislature passed it in 2005, according to the authors.

Kivisto and Phalen find that Indiana’s law was associated with a 7.5% drop in firearm suicides in the decade after its passage. Connecticut’s law, they find, was associated with a 1.6% reduction in firearm suicides after it was passed — that jumped to 13.7% after the state started enforcing the law in earnest eight years later.

“Even though risk-based firearm seizure laws have typically been enacted in response to mass homicides, the laws have functioned primarily as a means of seizing firearms from suicidal individuals,” Kivisto and Phalen write.

Other research led by Jeffrey Swanson at Duke University also analyzes how the Connecticut and Indiana laws have affected suicides. Swanson’s research takes a slightly different approach from Kivisto and Phalen. It looks at the prevention of suicide by firearm as a function of gun seizures. In both Connecticut and Indiana, Swanson and colleagues find roughly one suicide is prevented for every 10 gun seizures.

While research has found that these laws can save lives, Swanson writes that other questions still need answers. For example: How do these laws work best? Are there potential adverse consequences? How big of an impact can red flag laws have?

“These questions form an agenda for the next generation of research studies — an important next step in bringing this life-saving legal policy to scale,” Swanson concludes.

And there are now millions of federal dollars to fund research on self-harm and other types of gun violence. In December 2019, Congress allocated $12.5 million apiece to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to study gun violence in fiscal year 2020. Congress made the same allocation for 2021. Funded research is under way, including a $2 million study that began in September 2021 exploring which safety strategies deter school shootings, slated to end in August 2024.

Preventing all types of gun violence

The FBI defines a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are killed by an attacker firing a gun, though there is no standard definition for mass shootings. Tallies of mass shootings from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive are often covered in the news media. That group defines a mass shooting as at least four people killed or injured, not including the shooter. In the U.S. there have been more than 615 mass shootings in the first 11 months of 2022, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

While mass shootings receive wide media attention, they represent a small percentage of gun deaths. Writing in the Journal of Crime and Justice, Jaclyn Shildkraut at the State University of New York at Oswego — along with Jaymi Elsass and Kimberly Meredith from Texas State University — find that “race/ethnicity and victim counts are the most salient predictor of whether or not a shooting was covered.”

After Parkland, an interdisciplinary group of 19 experts released an 8-point proposal for preventing gun violence at schools, writing that “prevention entails more than security measures and begins long before a gunman comes to school.”

Regulations such as universal background checks, removing guns from people with a history of violence and red flag laws are most strongly associated with reducing firearm homicides, according to a Rockefeller Institute of Government policy brief from March 2019 by Michael Siegel and Claire Boine, both of Boston University.

Mass shootings and mental illness

Politicians sometimes bring up mental illness after mass shootings. In an analysis of 160 mass public shootings across the country during the 1990s, Grant Duwe, director of research at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, found in 60% of cases studied the killers had a psychiatric diagnosis. Another study that analyzed 305 violent incidents committed by people with a history of violence found psychosis immediately preceded 12% of those incidents.

Duwe and others urge against stigmatizing people with mental illness.

“Although these statistics should not be used to stigmatize populations, they do provide some justification for increased mental health treatment access and screening, which is sorely lacking in the United States,” Duwe writes in a separate paper in Current Opinion in Psychology from February 2018.

People with mental illness are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence, according to a wide body of research, including a 2017 paper in the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology that found guns are “not, by and large, a mental health problem.” Other research has estimated that to prevent one random homicide by a person diagnosed with schizophrenia, 35,000 people with schizophrenia would need successful risk management treatment.

Megan Ranney from Brown University and Jessica Gold from Washington University in St. Louis have noted that mass shootings are more correlated with domestic violence than mental illness. “If we are going to talk about the role of mental health in mass shootings, let’s talk instead about mental health in the aftermath,” they write in a piece published Aug. 7, 2019 in Time.

While research is sparse when it comes to red flag laws and mass shootings, research does show that these laws can still save lives. “The evidence on suicide prevention is a good enough reason for states to enact [extreme risk protection order laws] and for the federal government to incentivize them with infrastructure grants,” Swanson writes in an Aug. 9, 2019 article in The Washington Post.

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