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The Capital Shooting Highlights Need For Red Flag Laws

In light of yesterday’s tragic shooting in the Capital newsroom, an emerging question is whether a Red Flag law might have helped law enforcement keep guns out of the shooter’s hands. Even as details are still developing, we already know that these laws could help prevent future tragedies.

Red Flag laws empower families and law enforcement to seek an Extreme Risk Protection Order, a court order that temporarily restricts a person’s access to firearms when they pose a danger to themselves or others. Family members and law enforcement are often the first people to recognize warning signs that indicate someone might be a danger to themselves or others. Research has also shown that Red Flag laws would help prevent firearm suicides.

The suspected Annapolis shooter had displayed several warning signs over the years. In 2011 he pled guilty to harassing a woman he had gone to high school with — a case the Capital wrote about. Afterwards the shooter sued the paper for defamation and made multiple online threats to the newsroom. At one point the former editor in chief of the Capital reported threats from the suspected gunman to law enforcement officials, but at the time there was little they could do.

There is no way to know whether a Red Flag law could have saved the lives of those killed in the Capital newsroom. But, had a Red Flag law been in place in Maryland at the time of the shooting, law enforcement would have had the ability to petition a court for an extreme risk protective order, prohibiting the shooter from purchasing or possessing firearms and requiring him to surrender any already in his possession.

Recognizing the ways that Red Flag legislation can help prevent tragedies, Maryland lawmakers passed such a bill this year and it was signed into law by Governor Hogan, but the new law does not take effect until Oct. 1. The case for passing Red Flag bills became even clearer this year after it emerged that mother of the shooter in Parkland, Fla,. had previously alerted law enforcement of her concerns about her son.

Maryland is one of six states that have passed Red Flag laws since the Parkland tragedy, along with Delaware, Florida, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont. Currently Massachusetts has the opportunity to become the seventh state to enact a Red Flag law. A Red Flag bill received final passage yesterday in the legislature and is headed to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk to await his signature. In Illinois, lawmakers have passed a Red Flag bill, and Gov. Bruce Rauner has indicated his support for the concept, too.

In Congress, lawmakers have introduced several federal Red Flag bills with bipartisan support, including versions that would provide federal funding to states that enact Red Flag laws and legislation to empower families and law enforcement in all fifty states to seek extreme risk protection orders.

Red Flag laws can help prevent warning signs from turning into tragedies, and the list of states with these lifesaving laws could grow in the coming months. Lives are on the line. If you have questions about this important type of legislation, please don’t hesitate to reach out.