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A shooting last month in Nashville, Tennessee, that left three children and three adults dead at a private Christian school has once again raised the question of “red flag” laws, which might have prevented the killer from obtaining the firearms used in the attack.
Audrey Hale, 28, was being treated for an emotional disorder when she legally purchased seven guns. She used three of those guns – an AR-15, a Kel-Tec SUB 2000, and a handgun – in a premeditated attack at The Covenant School.
Red flag laws — also known as Extreme Risk Protection Order laws — “allow family members, law enforcement, or other responsible individuals to petition for a court order temporarily barring people in crisis from accessing firearms if they present a danger to themselves or others,” according to the White House website. New York, which already has a red flag law in place, notes on its state government website that the law “provides procedural safeguards to ensure that no firearm is removed without due process while helping to prevent tragedies.”
A similar law was proposed in Pennsylvania last year, following federal passage of the Bipartisan Safer Community Act, which expanded mental health services and provided additional support for states and school districts “to design and enhance initiatives that will promote safer, more inclusive, and positive school environments for all students, educators, and school staff,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.
If Pennsylvania adopted a red flag law, the state would be eligible for millions of federal dollars to use for violence prevention aids, mental health support, and more.
However, local lawmakers aren’t convinced a red flag law is necessary.
“No,” state Rep. Russ Diamond responded, in a one-word reply when LebTown asked if the Tennessee murders and other mass shootings had altered his views on red flag laws.
Pressed for clarification, Diamond (R-102) said he believes a red flag law in Pennsylvania would be misused.
“Red flag laws are attractive ideas to those who just don’t like guns,” he said in an email. “But because they are designed much like protection from abuse orders, they will often be misused like PFA orders as retaliation or revenge, infringing on the rights of individuals who are no danger to themselves or others.
“Nothing in recent news cycles has changed that reality.”
State Senator Chris Gebhard (R-48) also feels a law is unnecessary.
“Still look at this issue the same way,” he said in an email. “The US Constitution and the Pennsylvania Constitution seem pretty clear when it comes to this subject.”
‘The 302 procedure’
State Rep. John Schlegel (R-101) said a red flag law is unnecessary in Pennsylvania because he believes it duplicates an existing law.
“PA does have a procedure that addresses the issue you raised,” he told LebTown in an email. “The 302 procedure involves a legal due process hearing in which a hearing official listens to the facts relative to the person of concern and as a result, this process would if approved by the hearing official deny an individual from being in possession of a firearm.”
Section 302 of the state Mental Health Procedures Act, passed in 1976 and amended in 1978, provides for involuntary emergency examination and treatment authorized by a physician “upon written application by a physician or other responsible party setting forth facts constituting reasonable grounds to believe a person is severely mentally disabled and in need of immediate treatment.”
The law allows authorities to “take such person to an approved facility for an emergency examination” and says they must “take reasonable steps to assure that while the person is detained, the health and safety needs of any of his dependents are met, and that his personal property and the premises he occupies are secure.” The law also requires that the person be released within 120 hours unless they voluntarily agree to further treatment or unless the authorities file a certification for extended involuntary emergency treatment.
If certain conditions are met, the law grants some authorities the power to notify state police “of the identity of any individual who has been adjudicated incompetent or who has been involuntarily committed to a mental institution for inpatient care and treatment under this act or who has been involuntarily treated” as described under legislation “relating to persons not to possess, use, manufacture, control, sell or transfer firearms.”
CNN reported in 2021 that the NRA also opposed red flag laws.
On the federal level, U.S. Senator John Fetterman and U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser, both representing Pennsylvania, did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
However, U.S. Senator Bob Casey announced in February an $8.5 million package of federal funds from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to be used by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime & Delinquency to enhance behavioral health and crisis care programs and combat gun violence. In his announcement of the funding, Casey is described as “a staunch supporter of the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act.”
Although Casey also did not respond to a request for comment for this story, his press secretary Natalie C. Adams shared an op-ed Casey wrote for the Washington Post in which Casey urged Congress to “pass ‘extreme-risk protection’ laws to temporarily remove access to firearms from those who might be a risk to themselves or others, while respecting due process. These simple measures would keep guns out of the hands of criminals and dangerous individuals, while having no impact on everyday citizens’ ability to buy or possess firearms.”
The White House reported that 19 states currently have red flag laws in place, and several other states are considering red flag legislation this session.
According to a survey by APM Research Lab in 2019, about 77% of Americans support family-initiated extreme risk protection orders and 70% support law enforcement-initiated ERPOs. According to a survey analysis, women are more likely to support the laws than men, educated individuals are more likely to support the laws than less educated individuals, and city dwellers are more likely to favor the laws than rural residents.
Although a higher percentage of Democrats supported red flag laws, APM noted that a majority of Republicans and Democrats said they support some form of the law.
Only five states – California, Connecticut, Indiana, Oregon, and Washington – had red flag laws prior to a mass shooting in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and the District of Columbia all enacted red flag laws in 2018 after 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz used a semi-automatic rifle to kill 17 people at the school. Oklahoma, on the other hand, passed a law in 2020 barring the state or any county, city, or other political subdivision in the state from enacting red flag laws.
Axios.com noted in 2022 that the U.S. Congress in the past has opposed national red flag legislation, but said lawmakers from both parties have voiced support for a federal law after a shooting that year in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two teachers dead at an elementary school.
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