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September 16, 2019

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What can ‘red flag’ laws do to curb gun violence?

Legislation lets people petition to have guns taken from family

Recent mass shootings in Ohio, Texas and California have reignited the country’s seemingly eternal gun control debate.

So-called “red flag” laws have received national attention as possibly helping stem some gun violence in the country. Such laws generally allow people to petition the government, via the courts, to temporarily take away firearms from a family member who is considered dangerous.

Nevada is one of 17 states (and Washington, D.C.) to have a red-flag law on the books. The 2019 Legislature passed the measure with big Democratic majorities in both the Assembly and state Senate, and Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak signed the legislation into law. It will go into effect in January.

Sisolak, in a statement, said the law was a piece of the puzzle of how Nevada was tackling the gun violence problem.

“Since taking office, Nevada has made tremendous progress by passing the most consequential gun violence prevention legislation in our state’s history,” he said. “One of those measures, the ‘red-flag’ law, allows family members to ask a court to temporarily seize or prevent someone from having a firearm if he or she poses a danger to themselves or others.”

Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui, D-Las Vegas, helped shepherd the legislation into law.

A survivor of the Oct. 1, 2017, shooting on the Strip, Jauregui was the primary sponsor of Assembly Bill 291, an omnibus gun bill that also banned modifications known as “bump stocks,” among other provisions.

“What most people don’t know is that after the 1 October shooting, I actually became more silent on the issue,” Jauregui said when she introduced the bill. “I was terrified of sharing my story. I wanted to forget it ever happened and never have to relive a single moment of it again.”

The Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 students and staff members were killed, made her realize she had to speak out, she said.

Click to enlarge photo

Sandra Jauregui

Jauregui, in introducing the bill, recounted the terror she felt during the Las Vegas mass shooting. She choked up reading from a letter she sent to loved ones.

“I know that for every bullet that didn’t hit us, it hit someone else,” she said in the hearing.

Last week, Jauregui said that red-flag laws and other gun control measures must be part of the political conversation going forward, as an atmosphere of fear has been created around public events.

“This has to be an item that’s up for discussion and it has to be an item that every candidate has to have a plan for in 2020,” she said.

She said she’s had discussions with stakeholders on further legislation that could help curb gun violence.

“We did a lot in 2019, but it isn’t enough,” she said.

Here’s a closer look at the basics behind “red-flag” laws.

What do they do?

“Red flag” laws allow the state to temporarily take away firearms from people who have shown they may pose a risk to themselves or others.

While who can request the court take away a person’s firearms varies by state, in Nevada, it would have to be made by a “family or household member” or a law enforcement officer.

The court can move to take away the weapons if it determines that the person is a risk to himself or others, the person has engaged in “high-risk” behavior and less restrictive options are not found to be effective.

If the court moves to take away the firearms, the subject of the court order has to turn over his or her weapons to a designated law enforcement agency. Should he or she fail to do so, a search warrant would be issued to allow officers to seize the firearms.

Do ‘red-flag’ laws work?

Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit organization that advocates for gun control, cites multiple studies showing promising results in decreasing gun violence with “red flag” laws. For example, after enacting red flag laws, Indiana and Connecticut saw a decrease in firearm-related suicides by 7.5% and 14%, respectively.

In 51% of mass shootings, the shooter had displayed warning signs ahead of time, Everytown for Gun Safety said. While such laws don’t stop every mass shooting, they provide another means to keep guns out of the hands of those showing warning signs.

“Red flag laws in other states have been shown to reduce firearm suicide rates as well as disarm individuals who have made credible threats of violence against others,” Sisolak said. “Keeping Nevadans safe is a top priority, and I’m proud that we passed common-sense reforms like the red flag law that keeps guns out of the hands of those who wish to do harm.”

What’s the opposition?

The bill enacting Nevada’s red flag law was passed on party lines in the state Senate and near-party lines in the Assembly. Republicans and activists opposed to the measure said it would run afoul of constitutional guarantees to bear arms and to due process.

State Sen. Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, said on the Senate floor that the bill would justify an “intrusion into the home” by “merely owning a firearm.”

“What’s most troubling about this bill and what makes it more troublesome than other protection orders is that we are depriving somebody of a property interest without having been convicted of a criminal act,” he said.

State Sen. Keith Pickard, R-Henderson, told lawmakers the bill was built for the “confiscation of weapons” and that it did not address mental illness — which gun rights advocates point to as one of the main causes behind mass shootings.

“This bill is inappropriate and I do not believe it will withstand constitutional scrutiny,” Pickard said.

What’s next?

When Nevada’s law takes place on Jan. 1, it will further increase the patchwork of red flag laws throughout the country. Federal action on any form of gun legislation has been slow going, mainly due to Senate Republicans.

That could be changing, however, as both President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have signaled the possibility of being open to a federal red flag law.

When Congress returns in September, expect the debate to reignite. One bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Sens. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is gaining steam. It would create a federal grant program that would encourage states to adopt the laws.

Jauregui said she didn’t know if a red flag law would make it through Congress, with the House of Representatives under Democratic control but Republicans in the majority in the Senate. Nevada’s law, she reminded, was approved largely on a party-line vote.

“I think there are some people who will always see it as an infringement on Second Amendment rights when we know very well that laws like this can save lives,” she said.

Until gun control laws win approval on the federal level, Jauregui said, it’s not enough.