It’s time to start waving the red flag. In the world of gun-violence prevention, a red flag is a call to save a life. On Dec. 13, two gun-related events in the D.C. region mapped out two very different public policies toward guns. The dichotomy is telling. One proposal would encourage the use of guns to solve conflicts in our society; the other aims to prevent gun tragedies by intervening before they happen.
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On Capitol Hill, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) announced a bill that would “codify Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law at the federal level, abolishing the ‘duty of retreat’ when attacked.” In other words, if you want to battle it out with a gun, it’s legally okay to do so. Offering people the legal option of shooting back rather than avoiding a violent conflict is a bad idea. More shooting means more deaths, including of bystanders. Instead, our national goal should be to prevent guns being turned on our fellow human beings.
About 25 miles to the west in Fairfax County’s Public Safety Headquarters, the gun-violence prevention nonprofit that I founded and run, Safer Country, joined with Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Jeffrey C. McKay (D), two other supervisors and the commonwealth’s attorney to announce a countywide red-flag law public awareness campaign. The idea is to let people know they can prevent a gun tragedy by contacting law enforcement when they observe someone acting in a way that signifies real danger.
Tragically, too many of our states have it backward. At least thirty states have a “stand your ground” law. Only 19 and D.C. have a version of a red-flag law, also called an extreme risk order. Virginia became the 19th when it passed its red-flag law in early 2020. Since then, there have been 34 attempts to use the law in Fairfax County. In a county with 1 million people, it seems likely that not enough people know about a law that gives them the power to act.
A red-flag law empowers police to disarm a person if a judge believes there’s an imminent danger that person will use a gun to harm himself or herself or others. If a court order is issued to temporarily remove a person’s guns, and if the danger has not eased by a required hearing 14 days later, that person may be barred from purchasing, possessing or transporting a firearm for up to 180 days.
If we can raise public awareness, more people are likely to alert the police when they believe someone they know is in real trouble. Safer Country was fortunate to find an ally in Lee District Supervisor and Public Safety Committee Chair Rodney L. Lusk (D). He and committee co-chair James R. Walkinshaw (D) produced a unanimous and bipartisan vote by the full board to promote the county’s law. That campaign now has a website and a slogan Safer Country recommended: “Prevent a Gun Tragedy — Speak Up!”
This law saves lives. In one high-profile case, Richard Sherman, a star football player, repeatedly threatened to kill himself. Sherman’s family asked for help under a red-flag law in Washington state, and the local police were able to take possession of four handguns and a semiautomatic rifle, defusing the immediate danger. Sherman has since received mental health counseling and has resumed his football career.
There’s no way to know for certain that Sherman would have carried out his threats, but we know that the red-flag law made it much less likely. Had he lived in one of the 31 states that lack such laws, it would have been a lot harder for his family and public safety officials to keep Sherman from possibly doing harm. In most states, there are few options for public safety officials or family to act in advance, even when there are clear signs that somebody is on the verge of using a gun to do harm. That’s why this law is so valuable.
Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter, Jaime, was killed in the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., told me, “If red-flag laws had been in existence before [the shooting], my daughter would be alive today.” He also tweeted, “And this is why we need laws like red flag laws, to give law enforcement every possible chance to prevent someone who should not own a gun from having one.” The confessed Parkland shooter had spoken in advance that he had thoughts about using his rifle to kill.
With red-flag laws, we can create a safer country, even if we have to work county by county. Let’s all wave that flag and save lives.