Lawmakers in Congress are poised to pass the first gun control law in three decades. Among the elements of this legislation is the support of the states in passing the so-called “red flag laws”.
These laws, already in place in many states, allow police to take guns from people who are considered a threat to themselves or others. The laws also aim to prevent these people from buying guns.
The proposal has resurfaced following the mass school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and on other occasions in recent weeks. The Senate’s current draft bill will provide $750 million in federal funding to help states administer the red flag law if they have or pass it – though states without it can also qualify for the money by enacting other non-gun policies.
The contrast between states that have them and states that don’t provide a useful opportunity for a scientist like me, who uses data to help understand politics, to explore whether it can help reduce gun-related deaths.
Red flag laws spread after Parkland shooting
In 1999, Connecticut passed the nation’s first red flag law, allowing police, but not medical professionals or family members, to ask a judge for permission to remove a weapon from a person who is deemed to pose an immediate danger to themselves or others. In the following two decades, several other states passed similar laws.
In 2018, a mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida sparked a new rise. That same year, Florida passed a red flag law, and many other states followed suit. By the end of 2021, 19 states and the District of Columbia had done so. Not all states are participating: In 2020, Oklahoma banned its counties and municipalities from worrisome laws.
While these laws vary slightly from state to state where they exist, they usually allow a judge to declare a person ineligible to own or purchase a gun for a maximum of one year. The request must come from the police or, in some states, from a doctor or relative. The person can usually challenge the decision in court, and the police can ask for an extension of the decision, often referred to as a “risk protection order”, if they see fit.
In Florida, where the request must come from the police, an average of five such orders are issued each day.
Do they reduce gun deaths?
Studies have shown that Connecticut’s red flag law has reduced the number of suicides that are associated with the use of firearms by more than half of the cases.
To determine whether red flag laws reduce gun deaths overall, I examined the gun death rates in states in light of whether they had a red flag law or not, in each of the three years 2018, 2019 and 2020.
All seven states with the lowest gun death rates in 2020 had red flag laws. And 14 of the 15 states with the highest gun death rates did not have a red flag law that year. The exception was New Mexico, where a red flag law went into effect midway through the year.
On average, states with red flag laws in 2019 and 2020 had significantly lower gun death rates than states without them. In 2018, the average death rates for both groups were closer, but the rate was still significantly lower in states with red flag laws.
Then I imagined that these average death rates from firearms applied to the whole country – if the whole country had a law on red flags, or they would not exist at all. In 2020, were it not for the red flag laws, I estimate that 52,530 Americans would die from firearms. The actual number recorded was 45,222, indicating that red flag laws saved 7,308 American lives that year.
If red flag laws existed either at the state or federal level, I estimate that 33,780 people would die from firearms in 2020, saving an additional 11,442 lives.