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Red flag laws: What are they, and where are they in effect?

Red flag or extreme risk laws are in place in 19 states and the District of Columbia

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A Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent with homemade rifles at an ATF office in California.

An ATF agent poses with homemade rifles, or “ghost guns,” at an ATF field office in Glendale, Calif., on Aug. 29, 2017. Red flag laws are believed by some to be an option for bipartisan legislation. They place few limits on who can own a gun and what types of guns are legal. Congress is wrestling with gun laws after mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York.

Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

Gun control efforts have routinely stalled in the wake of mass shootings in the United States, with lawmakers unable to agree on the causes of gun violence, and what to do about it.

Activists have increasingly called for red flag laws, also known as extreme risk laws, as a potential solution to gun violence.

So, what are red flag laws, and, more importantly, do they actually work?

What do red flag laws do?

Extreme risk laws are believed by some to be an option for bipartisan legislation because they place few limits on who can own a gun and what types of guns are legal. Instead, they allow immediate family members or police officers to petition a court to temporarily remove guns from those who appear to pose a serious threat to themselves or others.

According to Axios, there is data and anecdotal evidence that these extreme risk protection orders work, given “that there are almost always observable signs of the violence to come” before mass shootings, and “experts say there are consistent patterns of behavior.”

The mass shooter who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 was reported to law enforcement more than once for threatening behavior prior to the massacre, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control laws.

Such laws have been the center of debate after recent shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, as both gunmen allegedly made prior statements online threatening violence.

Do red flag laws work?

Mass shootings account for a relatively small number of gun deaths each year, and advocates say red flag laws can decrease gun violence of all kinds.

Over 45,000 people were killed by guns in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a number that excludes deaths where a gunshot played a contributing — but not primary — role.

Just over half of those deaths were suicides, 43% were murders and 3% were unintentional, involved law enforcement or had undetermined circumstances. Nearly 8 in 10 murders involved a gun, the highest percentage since at least 1968, the earliest year for which the CDC has online records, according to Pew Research Center.

According to CBS News, red flag laws work, but their efficacy often depends on the implementation and participation in each state. New York state issues about 500 emergency orders per year, which is a relatively low number compared to its total population.

John Feinblatt, of Everytown for Gun Safety, said the Buffalo grocery store shooting last month is a “textbook case” of underutilized red flag laws.

“It was not the failure of the law,” he told CBS News. “It was the failure of the implementation of the law.”

When it comes to preventing suicides and other gun deaths, researchers say extreme risk laws have merit. For every 10 to 20 red flag orders that are issued, the number of suicides is reduced by one, Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis Health, told NPR.

Which states have red flag laws in place?

Prior to the Parkland shooting in 2018, only five states had extreme risk laws in place. Since then, 14 states and the District of Columbia have passed similar legislation.

Here’s a full list of states that currently have extreme risk laws in place:

  • California.
  • Colorado.
  • Connecticut.
  • Delaware.
  • Florida.
  • Hawaii.
  • Illinois.
  • Indiana.
  • Maryland.
  • Massachusetts.
  • Nevada.
  • New Jersey.
  • New Mexico.
  • New York.
  • Oregon.
  • Rhode Island.
  • Vermont.
  • Virginia.
  • Washington.
  • Washington, D.C.

What’s happening in Utah?

Utah doesn’t have red flag laws in place and has recently expanded access to firearms by dropping its concealed carry permit requirement and preventing counties or cities from preempting the state with tougher gun control measures. Efforts in the state Legislature to pass a red flag law have failed.

In the wake of the Uvalde elementary school shooting last month, Utah Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, announced a measure to raise the legal age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21.