Expert Commentary

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

There is research showing red flag laws may be effective in preventing suicides, but there appears to be minimal research associating red flag laws with reducing mass shootings.

(Peter Griffin/Public Domain Pictures)

President Donald Trump addressed the nation from the White House on Aug. 5, after shooters in separate incidents killed a combined 31 people in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas. In his remarks, Trump reiterated his call for states to pass so-called “red flag” gun-control laws to help prevent mass shootings.

“We must make sure that those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety do not have access to firearms, and that if they do, those firearms can be taken through rapid due process,” Trump said.

Red flag laws — also known as risk warrant and extreme risk protection order laws — allow courts, through due process, to temporarily take firearms from people whom family, friends or others report as potentially dangerous to themselves or others.

Trump and other politicians have suggested red flag laws in response to past mass shootings. After an armed student shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a flood of states passed red flag laws. Seventeen states, along with the District of Columbia, now have them. While research has associated red flag laws with lower suicide rates, there does not appear to be any peer-reviewed research on whether they can prevent mass shootings.

Red flag laws associated with fewer suicides

There is a lack of recent, federally funded research on gun violence because, in 1996, Congress passed legislation that prohibited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using funds to “advocate or promote gun control.” That means there is little federal funding to examine gun violence on a national scale. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t research on red flag laws.

One study published in Psychiatric Services in 2018 looks at how red flag laws affected suicide rates in Connecticut and Indiana. Nationally, almost two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides, according to 2017 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 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 recent research led by Jeffrey W. Swanson at Duke University also analyzes how the Connecticut and Indiana have affected suicides. Swanson’s research takes a slightly different approach than Kivisto and Phalen in that it looks at the prevention of suicide by firearm as a function of gun seizures. In both Connecticut and Indiana, Swanson and his colleagues find that roughly one suicide is prevented for every 10 gun seizures.

While the 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.

Again, there does not seem to be any peer-reviewed research on whether red flag laws can prevent mass shootings. According to a December 2018 report from the Federal Commission on School Safety, led by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, “available evidence suggests that the older risk warrant laws may have a positive impact on suicide prevention. We do not know whether they impact gun violence more generally, and it appears no studies have yet evaluated the more recent [extreme risk protection order] laws in other states.”

September 5, 2019 update: Since this article originally ran, there has been at least one preliminary piece of research published on red flag laws specifically as a counter to mass shootings. In “Extreme Risk Protection Orders Intended to Prevent Mass Shootings: A Case Series,” published August 20 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. Further evaluation would be helpful.”

Preventing all types of gun violence

Vox has tallied more than 2,000 mass shootings since 20 children and six staff members were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. The news outlet defines mass shootings as “events in which four or more people, excluding the shooter, were shot but not necessarily killed at the same general time and location.” The FBI uses a similar description, though there is no standard definition for mass shootings.

Since 2013, there has been only one week without a mass shooting, according to the Vox analysis. 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.”

There is not much academic research on preventing mass shootings. 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.”

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. President Trump drew a stark line connecting mental health and physical violence during his Aug. 5 remarks at the White House.

“Our future is in our control,” he said. “America will rise to the challenge. We will always have, and we always will, win. The choice is ours and ours alone. It is not up to mentally ill monsters.”

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 have urged 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 actually much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence, according to a wide body of research, including a paper from 2017 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 in Time.

While research doesn’t seem to exist on whether red flag laws affect rates of 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 article in The Washington Post.

About The Author