Washington -- Lawmakers on Capitol Hill held a rare hearing on gun control Tuesday morning to discuss so-called "red flag" laws enacted in several states to allow courts to issue orders confiscating the guns of individuals who are deemed to be a risk to others or themselves.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Republican Chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham, heard from policy experts, law enforcement officials and advocates -- including a parent who lost her 19-year-old daughter to a shooting -- during the public session.
Read our previous coverage from the hearing:
Graham concludes hearing
Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham concluded the hearing after all senators present had asked questions.
"I'm far more enlightened than I was before," Graham said, adding that he hoped Congress would be able to come to a bipartisan agreement to help implement red flag laws in states.
"I really can't see a reason why we can't pursue this at the federal level, to incentivize states," Graham said.
There are currently two bills in the Senate, one introduced by GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, and one proposed by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, of California, focused on incentivizing states to implement red flag laws.
Ernst asks about high rates of veteran suicides
Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, of Iowa, asked Ronald Honberg, the senior policy adviser of the advocacy group National Alliance on Mental Illness, about the propensity for veterans returning from combat and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to commit suicide using a gun.
"Many of our veterans, particularly our young veterans, have heroically defended our country and experienced horrific circumstances, and come back and need services and support," Honberg said, adding that it was important to de-stigmatize mental illness.
"We need to talk about mental illness not in terms of violence and criminality," Honberg said. He continued that it was important not to generalize about veterans and those suffering mental illness and their likelihood of committing gun violence, but to look at cases individually to determine whether a person should have his or her firearms taken away.
Protester interrupts Ted Cruz
When Republican Sen. Ted Cruz began his questioning, a protester stood and yelled for Cruz to "end gun terror."
"Thank you Jacinda Ardern!" The protester, a woman, shouted as she was escorted out of the hearing room, referring to the prime minister of New Zealand who announced a ban on assault weapons after a mass shooting killed 50 people earlier this month.
"People are dying and you're killing them!" The protester yelled at Cruz, presumably for his lack of support for banning assault weapons.
Florida sheriff: "It's imperative that you don't just rely on law enforcement"
Ric Bradshaw, the sheriff of Palm Beach County, urged lawmakers to ensure that mental health professionals be involved in any process of removing firearms from those who are a threat to themselves or others.
"It's imperative that you don't just rely on law enforcement," Bradshaw said. Although he said that officers involved in removing firearms often have training in crisis management, clinicians and mental health experts should also be involved.
Dave Kopel, the research director of the Independence Institute and a gun rights advocate who supports red flag laws, warned that mental health professionals should be involved in the decision to remove firearms, to ensure that people's weapons are not removed without due cause.
"Without good due process, this process could be abused," Kopel said.
Honberg pointed out that it's more common for people with mental illness to commit suicide with a firearm than to perpetrate violence against others.
"It's very important that we not conflate mental illness with criminality," said Honberg.
Witnesses give opening statements
Among the first recommendations was one that embraced the idea behind red flag laws but not the term "red flag." Ron Honberg, senior policy adviser of the advocacy group National Alliance on Mental Illness, suggested that "terms like 'red flag' laws should be avoided." Using the phrase "red flag," he said, indicates that mental illness is a red flag, which would stigmatize mental illness as inherently violent.
Amanda Wilcox, the legislation and policy chair for the California chapters of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, spoke about her daughter Laura's death in a shooting in 2001. Laura was 19 years old. Wilcox said that red flag laws could have prevented Laura's death, as the shooter's family, girlfriend and caseworker had been concerned about him.
Wilcox said that these laws could "save lives every day," noting that firearms could be returned to people.
"One can always give the gun back. I cannot get her life back," Wilcox said about her daughter Laura.
Dave Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute and a gun rights advocate, offered another perspective, describing his opposition to red flag laws which are too strict. He advocated on behalf of individuals' rights to due process, and to defend themselves against having their firearms confiscated without sufficient cause.
"Federal funding should support best practices, and not the worst," Kopel said.
Feinstein touts positive results of California's adoption of red flag law
In her opening statement, Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein discussed her proposed law, the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act of 2019, which would provide grants to incentivize states to adopt red flag laws.
Feinstein cited the example of Nikolas Cruz, the shooter who killed 17 people in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last year. Cruz had shown warning signs of violence prior to the shooting. Florida adopted a red flag law soon after the shooting.
Feinstein noted that San Diego has confiscated 318 firearms, including several automatic weapons, under California's red flag law. She expressed her regret that Congress had not taken more action to prevent gun violence until now.
"I though that the Sandy Hook shooting was a moment when Congress would step up and take action," Feinstein said, referring to the shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut which killed 27 people, including 20 children. She compared the American response to that of New Zealand, which banned automatic weapons six days after the massacre of 50 people earlier this month.
"I am hopeful that Congress will once again find the courage to do what's right," Feinstein said.
Graham begins hearing: "Nobody is going to come and take your guns"
Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham began the hearing by praising Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal for his efforts in trying to pass gun control measures. Connecticut, Blumenthal's home state, is one of the state to enact a red flag law.
Graham said that red flag laws did not violate the Second Amendment, but allowed family and friends to petition a judge to remove firearms from a person who poses a risk to themselves or others.
"Nobody is going to come and take your guns," Graham said, "But at the same time, every right has limits."
"We're trying to balance the right to own a gun under the Second Amendment with mental health issues," Graham continued. He cautioned against passing a federal red flag laws.
"I think passing a federal law is more than the market can bear," Graham said, but said Congress may be able to create incentives for states to pass their own red flag laws.
Activists fill hearing room
Activists from groups such as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Moms Demand Action crowded inside the hearing room in the Dirksen Senate office building, attending to show their support for enacting gun control legislation.
Renata, an intern with the Brady Campaign and a senior at the State University of New York in Albany, told CBS News that she was attending the hearing to raise awareness about how gun violence affects the African-American community.
"As a person who grew up in that community, it's only right to come and make a direct impact, and force our lawmakers to pass commonsense gun laws," Renata said.
Mary Wright Baylor, an activist with Moms Demand Action in the Burke Fairfax chapter in Virginia, said that she was attending to show support for red flag laws, which she called the "easiest and most commonsense" gun control measures to enact. She also said that she was a survivor of gun suicide, and understood how "the despair of gun violence shapes lives."
"Let's take guns away from people who a risk to themselves and to others," Baylor said, adding that she hoped this hearing would "move the needle" on gun control.
"This is going to be a matter of changing the culture and persuading people to see the big picture," she said.
What are "red flag" laws?
Sometimes called "extreme risk protection order" laws, "red flag" laws are designed to allow family members or law enforcement officials to go to a state court and ask a judge to issue an order that confiscates the guns of an individual who they believe poses a threat to their safety.
Those seeking the restraining order must present evidence to the court as to why the individual poses a threat to others, as well as to himself or herself. If a judge agrees to write the order after holding a hearing, the guns of the individual would be removed on a temporary basis.
There are currently 14 states which have implemented red flag laws, and more than two dozen legislatures considering this measure.
Who is testifying?
The senate panel will hear from a group of five policy experts, local law enforcement officials and advocates, including a parent who lost her daughter to a shooting. They are:
- Ronald Honberg, senior policy adviser of the advocacy group National Alliance on Mental Illness
- Amanda Wilcox, legislation and policy chair for the California chapters of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Wilcox's 19-year old daughter, Laura, was shot to death at a Nevada mental health clinic in 2001
- Ric Bradshaw, Palm Beach County Sheriff
- Kimberly Wyatt, prosecuting attorney at the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office
- Dave Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute and a gun rights advocate
Gun control: a contentious issue in Congress
Gun control has long been a highly contentious issue in Congress. Despite multiple mass shooting in which individuals have used high capacity, military-style weapons to kill dozens -- from elementary school students at Sandy Hook in 2015, to revelers in an Orlando nightclub in 2016 -- no federal gun control measures have passed in recent years.
Democrats have embraced gun control as one of their top legislative priorities, with many gun control advocates like Georgia Rep. Lucy MacBeth, whose 17-year-old son was shot to death in Florida, winning competitive suburban districts during the November midterm elections.
Most Republicans, meanwhile, continue to oppose any weapons ban, citing the "right to bear arms" enshrined in the Second Amendment. Democrats have accused their congressional colleagues in the GOP of being beholden to the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA).
The "red flag" proposals, however, have garnered bipartisan support in Congress, including from Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who agreed to hold Tuesday's hearing.