Watch CBS News

"Red flag" laws work — but only if they are used correctly, data show

Pressure intensifies for gun reform deal
Pressure intensifies for gun reform deal 02:30

Three months after the shooting spree at Marjorie Stoneman-Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, a staffer at a middle school three hours away reported a scare of her own.   

According to a police report filed in Osceola County in May 2018, a teacher alerted police about a janitor who was allegedly complaining about colleagues and mentioned a plan to bring a new gun to the school. The police report said the custodian told the teacher, "I'm angry and I'm set on something. I'll do it, you don't know me."

The police report, which was released to CBS News under a public records request, also noted that the custodian had been accused of throwing a chair and showing photos of a murder scene while on the job at the school.  The Osceola County Sheriff's Department would arrest him in May 2018 and seek an order that the firearm he'd recently purchased be seized under an emergency risk protection order (ERPO), also known as a "red flag" law. 

This kind of law is one of the major elements of a federal gun control bill currently being negotiated by the Senate, after the latest mass school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. 

Under red-flag laws, courts can issue orders for the seizure of guns from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.

In Osceola, criminal threat charges would later be dropped, but the custodian's case is one of the first wave of risk protection orders issued in Florida after the passage of the state's red-flag law in 2018, in the wake of the Parkland massacre..   

According to a CBS News review of state court records, Florida has issued 8,969 emergency risk protection orders since 2018, including at least 12 in Osceola County. 

Florida is one of 19 states with red-flag laws, along with the District of Columbia.  It is also among the states in which gun-seizure orders are most common.  

But a CBS News review of court records in the states in which red flag laws have already been implemented shows wide disparities in the frequency of red-flag orders and usage of the law.

In Maryland, courts approved nearly 400 emergency protective orders last year, for an average of more than one per day. The state approved its red-flag law, also known as an "extreme risk law," in October 2018.   

Montgomery County, Md., Sheriff Darren Popkin, who tracks the state's implementation of the law, said the state has aggressively conducted outreach to police and social service agencies to notify them of the new law. Popkin credits the law with helping avert a threat to a high school in Bethesda, Md., in late 2018, when a judge issued an emergency order against a student who allegedly made threatening statements on Snapchat.

"This is not a theoretical approach," Popkin said. "Data and research has confirmed that several of these cases in Maryland involved threats of mass violence and these actual cases were prevented due to a number of red-flag indicators."

New Jersey issued a similar number of emergency orders over the course of a year, with nearly 320 issued over a 12-month span ending in July 2020.

In cities and areas where gun laws are tighter and possession is less common, the CBS News review found emergency orders are less frequent.   

In the District of Columbia, only 20 orders have been issued since 2018. And in the New York City area, fewer than 10 emergency orders are listed in state court records since 2019.

There is broad concern in Illinois about the lack of orders in the state, despite a wave of mass shootings there. State legislators have criticized the implementation of their state's 2019 red flag law, calling it widely underused. The court records obtained by CBS News show only 51 emergency orders issued statewide in 2020 and 37 of them in 2021. 

"If it's underutilized, it's a big problem.  We won't be able to prevent these gun tragedies," said State Rep. Denyse Stoneback, a Democrat, who previously operated a gun violence prevention nonprofit organization.  "When the red flag law was first enacted, there was no structure put in place to inform residents or law enforcement about its passage or implementation."

Stoneback, who helped pass a bill to fund $1 million in state outreach and awareness campaigns about Illinois' law, said the funding will be made available within the coming months. "Illinois' numbers were especially low compared to other states. The law and the effort needed to be better funded. We need widespread awareness and training among law enforcement officers throughout the state."

Court records show only dozens of emergency orders in recent years in Massachusetts and Delaware. 

Gun control advocates are championing red-flag laws, but urging states to ensure the laws are fully implemented and known to police departments. It is officers who are frequently the applicants for court orders to seize firearms from potentially dangerous people.  

"We need to expand extreme risk protection or red flag laws," said Peter Ambler, of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, "The research shows that for every 10 to 20 orders issued, you can have one life saved. That's an extremely important thing."

The Buffalo grocery store shooting spree on May 14 potentially exposed the risk of not fully utilizing red flag law protections.

"Buffalo was a textbook case. It was not the failure of the law. It was the failure of the implementation of the law," said John Feinblatt of Everytown for Gun Safety.    

The suspected shooter in the Buffalo rampage had allegedly made prior statements and had reportedly undergone a psychiatric examination that could have triggered the state's red-flag law any time he tried to buy a weapon. 

New York state court records show approximately 500 emergency orders issued a year in New York state, only slightly more than the less populous state of Maryland.

Sen Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, a leader of the Senate's bipartisan gun control negotiations, told CBS News he has concerns that some states aren't administering red-flag laws effectively. Murphy said additional outreach, awareness and education about the laws are needed. He said some states are still being "reticent" with how they implement red flag provisions.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.