New research shows red flag gun laws save lives, but they stop suicides, not mass shootings
New research shows red flag gun laws save lives, but they stop suicides,
not mass shootings
These laws save lives. When it comes to extreme risk protection orders, both red and blue states on board — but they’re not the whole answer.
Four mass shootings since last October, each with double-digit death tolls, has us all searching for solutions. Although the venues were varied — two high schools, a Texas church and an open-air music festival — the common denominator to these massacres is, of course, the use of firearms and an ample supply of ammunition.
In response, we hear the usual conflicting proposals: more gun restrictions or simply more guns to ward off attackers. The debate gets louder and increasingly contentious after each episode of senseless carnage. There is, however, one goal that apparently most can support, regardless of position on the gun-control/gun-rights continuum: taking firearms away from those who are considered dangerous to themselves or others.
Before February’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla., six states had extreme risk laws (or “red flag laws,” as they are often called in public discourse). Since then, given the plethora of signs of trouble exhibited by the gunman Nikolas Cruz, as many as 32 states have either passed or are considering similar measures, according to the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence.
The list of possibles includes the especially gun-friendly state of Texas, which suffered a mass shooting last month even though the gunman didn’t quite seem the kind of dangerous individual for whom these statures are designed. Even the NRA, ever wary of the slippery slope, sees it reasonable to stand on solid ground in backing these initiatives.
A comprehensive new study found that long-standing statutes in Indiana and Connecticut have resulted in substantial reductions in suicide compared with what would have been expected based on trends in other states. According to lead author Aaron Kivisto, a University of Indianapolis professor of clinical psychology, there were 7.5% fewer suicides in Indiana over the decade following the law’s passage in 2005. Connecticut’s 1999 statute was associated initially with a 1.6% reduction in firearm suicides, but then a 13.7% reduction after the Virginia Tech massacre when enforcement was greatly enhanced.
The good news, then, is that these laws have indeed saved lives, but not necessarily the lives for which they were intended. Although undeniably worthwhile, it is notable that legislation in both states was prompted by high-profile homicides — in Indiana the fatal shooting of a police officer and in Connecticut the massacre of four employees at the state lottery headquarters. And, of course, the encouraging groundswell of support we are witnessing now around the country is the direct result of a mass killing.
Unfortunately, no research has surfaced to assess the impact of risk-based firearm seizure laws in preventing homicide, much less mass murder. It doesn’t necessarily follow that the same effects will translate to gun assaults. In fact, there is the worrisome potential for adverse consequences.
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Despite federal legislation two decades ago prohibiting domestic abusers from legally purchasing a firearm, there remain far too many instances of volatile relationships that end with a bullet.
In terms of mass killings, moreover, half involve a bloodletting of blood relatives. Sadly, domestic violence has sometimes escalated following the issuance of a restraining order. Similarly, an attempt by a frightened party to have guns taken from their threatening spouse or irrational child can precipitate the very violent act that confiscation is designed to prevent.
Ironically, the crimes that generate the most passion for gun control are the least likely to be impacted. Mass killers are nothing if not determined. Should their guns be confiscated, they can find ways to acquire another. Or, as we have seen in recent years, they can always get behind the wheel of a vehicle or construct a homemade bomb to inflict massive suffering through other means.
In addition, the warning signs of mass murder are generally not so obvious as in the Cruz case, not until after the damage has been done, that is, when hindsight is 20/20.
Nonetheless, if attempts to avert the most extreme acts of murder can help reduce the types of violence that don’t make headlines, then it is well worth the effort.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and co-author of The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesalanfox.