At Virginia’s Proposed Red Flag Law is Not the Best Way to Handle Mental Health Problems

Jan 27, 2020 | Featured

Dr. John Lott has a new piece at about Virginia’s proposed Red Flag Law. The piece starts this way:

Everyone wants to stop dangerous people from getting guns. To some the obvious solution is Red Flag laws, which take away the guns of people deemed dangerous to themselves or others. Wednesday’s straight party line vote in Virginia Senate shows that these laws are more controversial than normally understood. 

But the reasons for these differences get little coverage in the media.  As the debate moves to the Virginia House of Delegates, it is important to understand they are so controversial is that there is a much better alternative already in place. 

This alternative is commonly known as Baker Act statutes (Virginia’s is called the “Emergency Custody Orders and Temporary Detention Orders”), and they have been around in all states, most since the early 1970s. They allow police, doctors and family members to have someone typically held in most states and Virginia for a 72-hour mental health examination based upon a simple reasonableness test – little more than a guess or a hunch. 

These laws focus on mental illness, and they require that the individual be evaluated by mental-health-care experts. If a person can’t afford a lawyer, a public defender is provided. While judges can involuntarily commit an individual they believe is a danger to themselves or others, there is a range of options they can take, with the threat that other options can be followed up with involuntary commitment.

However, instead of using these laws, 17 states have now adopted Red Flag laws, with 13 states passing them since the shootings at the high school in Parkland, Fla. While Red Flag laws are often discussed in terms of mental illness and they are most frequently used in connection with concerns about suicide, only one state’s law even mentions mental illness and none of the states requires that a mental-health expert be involved in evaluating the person.

And, unlike Baker Act statutes, these new laws don’t offer safeguards, such as providing a lawyer for individuals who can’t afford one. When faced with legal bills that can easily amount to $10,000 for a hearing, very few think that keeping a gun justifies that cost.

Under these laws, initial confiscations of firearms often require just a “reasonable suspicion,” which is little more than a guess or a hunch. Judges simply have a piece of paper in front of them with the complaint when they are first asked to take away a person’s guns. When hearings occur weeks or a month later, about a third of these initial orders are overturned, but since few have legal representation, the actual error rate is undoubtedly much higher. 

When people really pose a clear danger to themselves or others, confine them to a mental-health facility. Guns are only one way they can do harm, and if they are intent on hurting others or themselves they can find a way. . . . .

The rest of the piece is available here.

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  1. bob m

    Come on, give me a break!

    A person may have an anger problem, or be angry or be frustrated, or hate his wife or his job. It doesn’t mean he is mentally ill.

    So after 72 hours, he is deemed sane but a bit angry, he goes home and blows his wife’s brains out. He tells the Doc, that he is frustrated with his job, Doc gives him some pills to calm down, releases him and he still blows his wife’s brains out.

    Your a smart guy, you should know this.

  2. Chris Z.

    @ Bob M If the man in your hypothetical is truly bent on killing his wife, he will do it via other means regardless of a red flag law. In the meantime, he can make the same claim against his wife, and her means of protecting herself vanishes as she is beaten to death with a blunt object. You think you’re a smart guy, you should know this.