Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams in Colorado made news Monday over his willingness to go to jail over his refusal to enforce what will soon be the state’s new “Red Flag” law.
Given the news media plays these laws, also known as Extreme Risk Protection Orders, as being so sensible, Sheriff Reams looks like a kooky right-winger. After all, who could be against taking away guns from people who are a danger to themselves or others?
But the laws are more complicated than usually discussed in the press. Depending upon the state, anyone from a family member, intimate partner, ex, house or apartment mates, or police can file a complaint. They don’t even have to be living in the state. There is no hearing. All the judge has before them is the statement of concern.
As in the Tom Cruise movie, “Minority Report,” all you have to do is figure out who is going to commit the crime.
Only one state’s law mentions mental illness. The individuals who are identifying who they think are dangerous do so on an “I will know it when I see it” standard. In practice, a person’s criminal history, gender and age help decide who is a danger. But we already have laws that say felons, even non-violent ones, can’t own guns.
Even misdemeanor violations can cost you your right to own a gun. Gun control advocates want to take firearms away from people arrested but not convicted of crimes.
When people really pose a clear danger to themselves or others, they should be confined to a mental health facility. Simply denying them the right to legally buy a gun isn’t a serious remedy. If you think that you are any more likely to stop criminals from getting guns than illegal drugs, good luck. The same drug dealers sell both and are a major source of guns. And there are other weapons such as cars.
Nor are guns the only way for mentally unstable people to commit suicide. There are many substitutes that are as effective.
These laws may damage trust between people. In the absence of a Red Flag law, a person contemplating homicide or suicide might speak to a friend or family member and be dissuaded from that course of action. But now there may be a fear that the authorities will be tipped off and restrict the person’s ability to defend themselves and their family. The result may be that such individuals don’t seek help and go on to kill themselves or others.
Despite the sacrifices, the evidence shows no benefits from these laws. Looking at data from 1970 through 2017, Red Flag laws appear to have had no significant effect on murder, suicide, the number of people killed in mass public shootings, robbery, aggravated assault or burglary. There is some evidence that rape rates rise. These laws apparently do not save lives.