If a person is really a danger to himself or others, confiscating guns isn’t much of a solution. There are so many other ways for disturbed people to cause harm. But advocates of “red flag” laws want people to believe that simply taking away someone’s legally-owned guns means the problem is solved.
Last week, the Biden administration announced it was using part of the $1.8 trillion massive spending bill passed after last year’s election to give $231 million to states that enact red-flag laws and push other gun-control policies. After last week’s mass public shooting at Michigan State University, gun-control advocates from Michael Bloomberg’s Moms Demand Action were again touting red-flag laws as the solution. Michigan legislators also see the attack as a chance to pass the law.
The law doesn’t respect the right to due process. Judges take away a person’s guns without a hearing based on only a mere written complaint. But the laws also don’t even make people safer.
It’s easy enough for people to do something crazy with a motor vehicle, but none of the red-flag laws address taking away a person’s ability to drive. Last week, a 62-year-old man ran over people with a U-Haul truck on a Brooklyn sidewalk, killing one and injuring eight others. The man was described as having had a mental health crisis.
Until 2018, the Crime Prevention Research Center tried keeping a list of vehicle attacks worldwide. The worst recent vehicle attack occurred in France on July 14, 2016, when 86 were killed and 430 wounded. That attack was much more deadly than any American mass public shooting. In Western Europe, only the November 2015 Paris concert attack was more deadly.
There have been more vehicle attacks in the past few years. In November 2021, a 38-year-old man who was already facing felony charges for attempting to kill the mother of his child with his car murdered six and injured 62 others with that same vehicle at a Waukesha Christmas parade.
In November 2022, Florida police narrowly averted a “mass casualty” event at a 5K Thanksgiving Day run by stopping a woman before she could drive her Range Rover through the crowd at 60 mph. Once caught, the disturbed woman “repeatedly banged her head” against the window of a police car.
The Washington Post notes that between May and June 2020, there were at least 18 deliberate vehicles rammings into people.
The MSU killer suspect, Anthony McRae, also had a history of mental illness. Police even performed a welfare check on him just the week before the attack. But if the police had a “reasonable belief” that McRae posed a danger to himself or others, they already had the authority to have him evaluated under Michigan’s involuntary commitment law. If mental health professionals concurred about McRae posing a danger, there would have been an immediate hearing and a lawyer provided for his defense.
While judges can involuntarily commit individuals, they also have a broad range of other options, such as voluntary mental health treatment with a follow-up hearing or taking away a person’s guns.
Red-flag laws start with the same “reasonableness” test but don’t give people a hearing and have no mental health care experts involved in the process. The judge is only given the power to confiscate a person’s legally-owned guns.
The same reasonableness standard applies to both red-flag laws and involuntary commitment. And the police didn’t think McRae met that standard, so a red-flag law wouldn’t have prevented this attack.
As to using red-flag laws to prevent suicides, about half of suicides do indeed involve guns, but there are lots of other lethal methods (e.g., hanging, cyanide, walking in front of a train or bus, jumping from a lethal height). When all firearms are banned, the suicide rates remain statistically unchanged as people simply switch to other ways of killing themselves.
A frequent claim is that red-flag laws are very popular. But when surveys explain that guns are taken away without a hearing and that no mental health professionals are involved, voters change from 2-to-1 support to almost 2-to-1 opposition.
If a person is actually dangerous, he has so many other ways to commit suicide or kill others. It is no wonder research shows red-flag laws to be ineffective.