Following the El Paso and Dayton shootings, almost every politician is desperate to look like they’re taking decisive action on gun violence. And it appears that the Republicans have found their fix: red flag laws, sometimes known as Extreme Risk Protection Orders. During televised remarks on August 5, Trump explicitly endorsed “red flag laws,” the NRA supports them too. While that should make you immediately skeptical, red flag laws aren’t an inherently a bad idea—but how the Republicans plan to use them could prove dangerous.
The trap is pretty simple: emphasis on red flag laws plays right into Republicans’ hands, allowing them to characterize the problem of gun violence as a mental health crisis rather than a gun crisis. Red flag laws do nothing to impede the actual sale or proliferation of firearms; the NRA is fine with them because they don’t actually impact the gun lobby in any way.
In theory, they work by allowing law enforcement, with a court order, to remove guns from the possession of someone who may cause harm to themselves or others. Proponents point to promising data from Indiana, which enacted an ERPO law and saw a 7.5 percent drop in the firearm suicide rate. Other early adopters, per the Washington Post, have seen mixed results; what seems clear is that these laws are just one tool for mitigating gun violence and not a panacea for the problem overall.
On a surface level, bipartisan support for red flag laws is a good thing. Make no mistake: They’re an important fix to one aspect of this country’s gun violence problem and should be implemented in some way in any progressive plan for gun reform. It’s good they’re now at least part of the conversation. But the devil is always in the details.
For one: emphasizing red flag laws allows Republicans to fully characterize stopping gun violence as a mental health issue, not a gun issue. You can already see this bullshit rhetoric developing around a complimentary fix that goes hand in hand with ERPOs—universal background checks.
“Mentally ill or deranged people”? Christ. And look—prominent Democrats, already stepping directly on this rake! Here’s “Uber Progressive” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo:
A mental health database? You gotta be fucking kidding me. Great idea, champ: make a database of everyone who’s ever been depressed, which would be so much more helpful for curbing gun violence than, say, making a database of all of the guns.
Fortunately, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer does not seem to be this thick (a surprise!):
“The notion that passing a tepid version of an Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) bill—alone—is even close to getting the job done in addressing rampant gun violence in the U.S. is wrong and would be an ineffective cop out,” Schumer said in a statement on Wednesday.
Good! An accurate characterization of the situation! We’ll see if it holds up through the writing and passage of such a bill, which is going to be an absolute fucking mess.
The reason for that is again, details: Red flag laws can also present some pretty serious civil liberties dilemmas if not properly written. The Rhode Island ACLU has an extremely thorough breakdown of the flaws in a red flag law that passed in that state last year, namely that they could easily become some Minority Report predictive policing bullshit that infringes on civil rights and could be used to target specific groups and people.
Republicans will likely try to write any such bill with as many caveats for persecuting minority groups, especially immigrants, as possible. That’ll put the burden of stopping that on congressional Democrats, who, well, don’t have a great track record there: They let Republicans slip a poison pill amendment that directly targets undocumented immigrants into HR8, the universal background checks bill that passed the House this spring.
It’s pretty clear an extension of this is going to be the Republican plan: hone in on red flag laws to frame the gun debate around mental health, then include as many fucked up provisions to that law and any other bills that make it to the Senate as possible, effectively sabotaging any real reform. With Mitch McConnell in charge of the Senate and giving absolutely no indication that he gives a shit about any of this, that leaves the Democrats with two pretty shitty options: either capitulate to bad faith Republican demands and pass crappy laws, or wait to take any action toward gun reform until (maybe) they can flip the Senate, which would lead to both sides screaming the other one is at fault for the mass shootings that will certainly continue to happen in the interim, while the entire debate largely ignores the thousands of other victims of gun violence who aren’t killed in mass shootings. Great country we’ve got here.