Red Flag Laws: Are They Effective?

Over the last few weeks, I have been blogging about the trend across the country to pass what is referred to as “red flag” laws. So far, we have explored what they are, the names that are used to refer to them, and both sides of the argument in support or opposed to red flag laws. Last week, there was a typographical error in the blog. It said that “[p]roponents also argue that red flag laws do little to get help for those in crisis.” “Proponents” was the wrong word and the blog has been corrected to reflect that it is opponents of red flag laws. This week, we will examine the studies of red flags laws and their effectiveness.

Following the Parkland school shooting, President Trump established the Federal Commission on School Safety. The President tasked the Commission to report on policy recommendations to prevent future school violence. That Commission compromised of U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen, U.S. Department of Human and Health Services Secretary Alex M. Azar, II, and U.S. Department of Justice, Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitacker.[1] In their cover letter to the President, the Commission stated, “There is no universal school safety plan that will work for every school across the country. Such a prescriptive approach by the federal government would be inappropriate, imprudent, and ineffective.”[2]  In the Commission’s report to the President, they discussed red flag laws.

The Commission stated that red flag laws are of recent vintage with the oldest law on the books being less than twenty (20) years old.[3] At the time of the report, over half of the states with laws on the books were less than one year old.[4] The Commission was not surprised that there was little research on the effectiveness of red flag laws.[5] In the report, the Commission discussed two studies that examined the effectiveness of Connecticut’s and Indiana’s red flag laws on the prevention of suicide.[6] The Commission reported that these studies examined the impact on the prevention of suicide and not the impact to violence against others.[7] The Commission concluded that they “do not know whether [red flag laws] impact gun violence more generally, and it appears no studies have yet evaluated the more recent ERPO laws in other states>”[8]

One of the two studies referenced by the Federal Commission on School Safety was conducted by Aaron J. Kivisto, Ph.D., and Peter Lee Phalen, M.A.[9] In their study, Kivisto and Phalen studied the effect of the red flag laws on suicide rates.[10] At the conclusion of their study, they found that “Indiana’s firearm seizure law was associated with a 7.5% reduction in firearm suicides in the ten years following its enactment, an effect specific to suicides with firearms and larger than that seen in any comparison state by chance alone.”[11] They also discovered that the “enactment of Connecticut’s law was associated with a 1.6% reduction in firearm suicides immediately after its passage.”[12] The researchers also determined that following the shooting at Virginia Tech, the reduction in firearm suicides increased to 13.7%, when enforcement of the law substantially increased.[13] The researchers learned that of the 762 individuals exposed to firearm seizures between 1999 and 2013 in Connecticut, 21 committed suicide (six via firearm).[14]

The first study cited by the Federal Commission on School Safety was authored by ten individuals from four different universities.[15] This study focused solely on the impact of Connecticut’s law on reducing suicide. The authors of this study stated that they were able to review the information in “702 risk-warrant petitions was available for review.”[16] The authors found that “suicidality or self-injury threat was listed as a concern in sixty-one percent of cases, and risk of harm to others was a concern in thirty-two percent of cases.”[17] The authors of the study found that in “fifty-five percent of cases police were sufficiently concerned about the mental health or intoxicated condition of the subject that they transported the individual to a hospital emergency department for evaluation.”[18]The authors stated in their summary that “[u]sing the law to prohibit a suicidal person from purchasing a gun is a good idea, but one that will not work—even with a comprehensive background check system—as long as those who are inclined to harm themselves do not fall into some category of persons prohibited from possessing or purchasing firearms under federal or state law.”[19]

The effectiveness of red flag laws to prevent mass shootings is simply not known as there has been no studies into this type of prevention. The two studies that have studied the effectiveness of red flag laws on the prevention of suicide by firearm indicate that the impact of the laws is reducing suicide by firearm by less than 20%. The authors of the Connecticut study raise a question to ponder, “Will using the law to prohibit a suicidal (or homicidal) person from purchasing or possessing a gun work to prevent future death?” It may take years to understand the effectiveness of red flag laws on the prevention of mass shootings and suicide. The answer for now is that we just do not know if the passage of red flag laws will achieve the desired effect of those that propose such laws.

Take the time to read and study the report from the Federal Commission on School Safety and the two studies that have been published. Educated yourself fully on red flag laws as passed in other states, so you will know what legislators are proposing in our state and if the public policy behind the law is sound.  Next week, we will explore the due process of red flag laws.

[1] Final Report of Federal Commission on School Safety, December 18, 2018,, accessed on September 12, 2019.

[2] Id.

[3] Final Report, page 90.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Aaron J. Kivisto, Ph.D., and Peter Lee Phalen, M.A., “Effects of Risk-Based Firearm Seizure Laws in Connecticut and Indiana on Suicide Rates, 1981–2015”, accessed on September 12, 2019.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Swanson, Jeffrey W. et al, “Implementation and Effectiveness of Connecticut’s Risk-Based Gun Removal Law: Does It Prevent Suicides?”,, accessed September 12, 2019.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

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