Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams in Colorado made news Monday over his willingness to go to jail over his refusal to enforce what will soon be the state’s new “Red Flag” law.
Given the news media plays these laws, also known as Extreme Risk Protection Orders, as being so sensible, Sheriff Reams looks like a kooky right-winger. After all, who could be against taking away guns from people who are a danger to themselves or others?
But the laws are more complicated than usually discussed in the press. Depending upon the state, anyone from a family member, intimate partner, ex, house or apartment mates, or police can file a complaint. Under Colorado’s proposed law, anyone can make a phone call to the police. They don’t even have to be living in the state. There is no hearing. All the judge has before them is the statement of concern.
As in the Tom Cruise movie, “Minority Report,” all you have to do is figure out who is going to commit the crime. At least the “PreCrime” division in the movie had the help of psychics.
Fourteen states have now adopted these laws. Nine states adopted these laws last year after Parkland. Colorado will be the second state this year to adopt the law. U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, and Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, have similar laws that they are pushing.
In the first nine months after Florida passed its Red Flag law last year, judges granted more than 1,000 confiscation orders. In the three months after Maryland’s law went into effect on Oct. 1, more than 300 people had their guns taken away. In one case in Anne Arundel County, a 61-year-old man died when the police stormed his home at 5 a.m. to take away his guns. Connecticut and Indiana have had these laws in effect for the longest time and have seen large increases in confiscation orders as time has gone by.
Little certainty is needed. Some states allow initial confiscations on just a “reasonable suspicion,” which is little more than a guess or a hunch. Others at least mandate “probable cause” that the individual is dangerous. These standards allow a judge to take away a person’s right to self-defense when there is significantly less than 50 percent chance of something bad happening.
Only one state’s law mentions mental illness. The individuals who are identifying who they think are dangerous do so on an “I will know it when I see it” standard. In practice, a person’s criminal history, gender and age help decide who is a danger. But we already have laws that say felons, even non-violent ones, can’t own guns.
Even misdemeanor violations can cost you your right to own a gun. Gun control advocates want to take firearms away from people arrested but not convicted of crimes. Their unwillingness to make that explicit indicates that they are afraid that courts would strike down such laws.
It has always been possible to take away someone’s guns, but all 50 states have required testimony by a mental health expert before a judge. Hearings could be conducted very quickly in urgent cases, But gun control advocates argue that it’s important to not even alert the person that his guns may be taken away. Hence, the 5 a.m. police raids.
When people really pose a clear danger to themselves or others, they should be confined to a mental health facility. Simply denying them the right to legally buy a gun isn’t a serious remedy. If you think that you are any more likely to stop criminals from getting guns than illegal drugs, good luck. The same drug dealers sell both and are a major source of guns. And there are other weapons such as cars.
Nor are guns the only way for mentally unstable people to commit suicide. There are many substitutes that are as effective. Very effective poisons such as cyanide are easily available.
These laws may damage trust between people. In the absence of a Red Flag law, a person contemplating homicide or suicide might speak to a friend or family member and be dissuaded from that course of action. But now there may be a fear that the authorities will be tipped off and restrict the person’s ability to defend themselves and their family. The result may be that such individuals don’t seek help and go on to kill themselves or others.
Liberals understand this point when it comes to something like AIDS. they know that the threat of quarantining may discourage infected people from seeking medical help. But they seem unaware that the threat of leaving people defenseless might engender similar problems.
Despite the sacrifices, the evidence shows no benefits from these laws. Looking at data from 1970 through 2017, Red Flag laws appear to have had no significant effect on murder, suicide, the number of people killed in mass public shootings, robbery, aggravated assault or burglary. There is some evidence that rape rates rise. These laws apparently do not save lives.
Everyone wants to stop mass public shooters. But we haven’t previously punished people because we have little more than a hunch, without any specific rules, that they might be a danger. Sheriff Steve Reams knows that the low standards mean that there are going to be a lot of mistakes. Stopping “future crimes” didn’t work in the movies, and they aren’t working in real life.
• John Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author most recently of “The War on Guns.”
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