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Good Question: When Do Flags Have To Be At Half-Staff?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Through Friday, flags at federal buildings around the United States will be at half-staff in honor of the victims of the Sikh temple shooting outside Milwaukee. As of Wednesday night, Minnesota hasn't decided whether flags should be lowered in front of state buildings.

So when do flags have to fly at half-staff?

If you think you've seen flags at half-staff a lot, you have. Five times in the past two months, Minnesota has ordered flags lowered. According to the governor's office, it's happened 10 times in 2012 so far.

But who decides, exactly?

"In Minnesota, the governor decides, in the country, the president decides," said Katharine Tinucci, press secretary for Gov. Mark Dayton.

A 2004 statute orders all American and Minnesota flags on Capitol grounds to be lowered when a "public safety officer" or "Minnesota military personnel" is killed in the line of duty.

But the governor has wide discretion to lower the flags in other circumstances; he does it by an official proclamation.

"They've been very limited. We did lower on the anniversary of 9/11, we did lower on the last two anniversaries of the 35W bridge," Tinucci said.

The tradition started in the 1600s. Then, when a ship's captain was killed in action, his crew would fly the flag at half-mast, leaving room for the invisible flag of death on top.

"Unfortunately, we have seen the flags lowered," Tinucci said. "In 2011, we lowered them 17 times for Minnesota military members."

The decision is ultimately made by the governor, with input from staff members, Tinucci said. The proclamation only officially covers flags on state property, although many private businesses and homeowners follow suit.

As of Wednesday night, the governor and his staff were still debating what to do to pay tribute to the victims of the Sikh temple attack.

"I believe the president has ordered for several days in honor of that incident," Tinucci said. "Following Aurora, he did the same thing, we decided one day in solidarity."

Although the statute requires someone to be killed in the line of duty, the state did order flags to half-staff for a Minnesota soldier who committed suicide while on duty, following the lead of President Barack Obama, who ordered federal flags to half-staff in his honor, Tinucci said.

Official proclamations can be controversial. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie took heat for ordering the flags lowered when Jersey-native Whitney Houston died.

"We don't want to overuse it," Tinucci said, "but it is a way to pay tribute to someone who's made an impact on our state."

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