As the 2020 Virginia Legislative session draws to a close this week, it appears that a version of a “Red Flag” law (House version; Senate version) will be sent to Governor “Blackface” Northam for his signature. I thought I had exhausted my complaints about these laws previously, but Virginia’s Bloomberg-purchased Democrats made changes that plumb new depths: “extreme risk” was lowered to “substantial risk” and the usual time frame of “imminent” was expanded to “near future.”
Determining whether or not “substantial” refers to the likelihood or magnitude of the harm is an exercise left for judges to determine. But they receive no more guidance regarding risk assessment than whatever evidence they “shall” consider, leaving respondents at their mercy and reducing courts to the Chanceries of old.
Virginians can look to Florida to see what we’re in for. The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence recently released a report of its examination of the usage of Florida’s Red Flag law, an “extreme risk protection order,” in Broward County. The report opens with their justification for these laws:
“People who carry out violence against themselves or others often exhibit dangerous behavior and warning signs. Restricting firearm access in these moments of crisis is a critical way to prevent gun violence and save lives. Extreme risk laws give law enforcement a process to do just that.”
The key premise of Red Flag laws is that there is a category of behaviors that are neither criminal nor due to a mental illness that merits civil commitment, that indicate that the person is at such risk of violence that his/her enumerated rights should be immediately violated ex parte for the protection of the subject and those around them. Yet of 255 unique petitions filed between March 9, 2018 and March 9, 2019 in Broward County, not one of the cases could not have been managed under existing laws, either by mental health commitment or by the criminal justice system.
The report opens with a case study that demonstrates all the problems with the use of Red Flag laws. One individual’s guns were taken following the conclusion that there was “extensive evidence of danger” based upon the following, that:
“. . . he always carried around a backpack, that he often seemed disengaged and disinterested during church service, and that he was easily agitated . . .
“. . . he carried around a heavy workout plate in his backpack and was claiming that he was training for the military. He also carried firearms, both in his backpack and on his person. . .
“He also held up his 10-pound metal workout plate and asked another youth group participant, ‘What would happen if I smack you in the head with this?’
“A search of his social media found posts stating that he ‘hates God’ and ‘hates church.’ He also published social media posts talking about the Parkland shooter and posing with an AR-15-style assault weapon.
“ . . he was obsessed with the idea of treating gunshot wounds and talked about shooting a dog to have a subject on which to practice his developing medical skills. He also talked about how he wanted to get a gun like one that snipers use because they are more powerful, and said that he liked the idea of ‘one shot, one kill.’”
Taking this data in the light most favorable to the Giffords position, that “he might turn into the next Parkland shooter,” can we rest easy knowing that his guns have been confiscated but he continues to move freely about in the community? This is the glaring deficiency of Red Flag laws: guns are removed, but individuals remain unhelped. In this case, the young man actually committed assault when he held up the workout plate and asked “What would happen if I smack you in the head with this?” This proves that even without his guns, he posed a risk to those around him, and yet the report makes no comment on this.
Nor does the report provide any follow-up information after the confiscation of his firearms. That’s because these laws, and the people who support them, are interested in neither the subjects of these petitions nor in the general public that is supposed to be protected—they just want the guns. This is even more obvious in the summary of statistics about the law’s usage: “412 guns seized, 3 per seizure, 67 guns surrendered by one individual.” The report was silent about lives saved, and not from intellectual honesty. That is not their main goal, and they can’t tell anyway.
The report puts the Florida experience in the context of other states that have had similar laws for many years:
“For example, recent studies show that for every 10 to 20 firearm removals under Connecticut’s and Indiana’s extreme risk laws, approximately one life was saved through an averted suicide. Studies also suggest that these firearm removals result in population-level reductions in gun suicides: Connecticut’s and Indiana’s extreme risk laws have been associated with
14% and 7.5% reductions in firearm suicide rates in these states, respectively.”
The “10 to 20” figure is offered as a feature instead of the bug it is. This means that from 9 to 19 people’s enumerated rights were violated without any benefit to anyone, and 1 person’s rights were violated but we don’t even know whether that dangerous person received any help.
Although gun-related suicide might have decreased, overall suicide numbers continued rising. Looking specifically at Florida after implementation of its Red Flag law, despite 3,500 confiscations Florida’s rate of suicide is climbing as it is in other states with Red Flag laws.
Red flag laws were designed by confiscationists to keep the focus on guns because it’s part of their plan to demonize them and those who own them. They want us to equate guns with their misused lethality, as if guns have no other purposes (like sports, self-defense or therapy). The report makes this clear in one item in its list of “risk factors”:
“Risk Factor Prevalence: . . . Has recently acquired firearms or ammunition”
We know better, and we have to do better at getting the truth out. Open Source Defense recently offered the following statistic which defines “well-regulated” for the 21st century:
“There are 423 million guns in the US. Each year, about 14,500 of them are used in a murder. Those are extensively studied, and that’s good. So now is a good time to start studying the other 99.9965721%.”
Keep in mind that influenza kills about three times as many each year. Cars are implicated in over twice the number of deaths. Guns are not the problem. “Gun violence” is a misnomer for human violence perpetrated with a certain type of weapon.
In the same way that we address human behavior to contain the spread of disease and to make our roads safer, let’s focus on people, not the weapons. We can much more surely make our communities safer by using the constitutional tools of criminal justice and mental health civil commitment laws.
–Dennis Petrocelli, MD is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist who has practiced for nearly 20 years in Virginia. He took up shooting in 2019 for mind-body training and self-defense, and is in the fight for Virginians’ gun rights.