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Op-ed in the Fort Worth Star Telegram: Forget red-flag laws to tackle guns. Here’s a better way that focuses on mental health

23 Jan , 2020  

In the aftermath of the White Settlement Church shooting, many in Texas are talking about passing a Red Flag law. Dr. John Lott has an op-ed in the Fort Worth Star Telegram that responds to an editorial that the newspaper published. Lott’s piece starts this way:

Nobody wants dangerous people to get guns. In the wake of the West Freeway Church of Christ attack, people are pushing red-flag laws, which allow police to take away the guns of people deemed dangerous to themselves or others. But a better alternative already exists.

They are commonly known as Baker Act statutes (Texas’ is called the “4800 Mental Health Commitment”) and have been around since the early 1970s. They typically allow police, doctors, and family members to have someone held for a 72-hour mental health examination based upon a simple reasonableness test – little more than a guess or a hunch. The hold in Texas is up to 48 hours.

These laws focus on mental illness, and they require that mental-health professionals evaluate the individual. 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, they have a range of options, including taking away guns, with the ultimate threat of involuntary commitment.

However, instead of using these laws, 17 states have now adopted red-flag laws, with 13 states passing them since the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla. While the public discussion of red-flag laws focuses on mental illness, and suicide prevention is their primary use, only one state law even mentions mental illness. None require a mental-health expert evaluate the person.

And, unlike Baker Act statutes, these new laws don’t offer legal 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 also often require only a reasonableness test. Judges have only a piece of paper in front of them with the complaint when they first decide 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 because 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 hardly the only way to do harm, and if they are intent on hurting themselves or others, they can find a way. 

Red-flag laws even harm people who need help. Absent such laws, a person contemplating suicide might speak to a friend or family member and be dissuaded from that dire course of action. With the laws, they may fear that speaking out will result in a report to authorities – and their ability to defend themselves or loved ones would be restricted. 

Police officers often experience depression on the job. Is it better if they worry that sharing their feelings means their guns and thus their jobs are taken from them? 

Despite all the costs, the evidence shows no benefits from red-flag laws. Looking at data from 1970 through 2017, these laws haven’t reduced rates of murder, suicide, mass public shootings, robbery, aggravated assault, or burglary. Lives weren’t saved.

The rest of the piece is available here.

More on how this murderer was able to obtain a gun.

Kinnunen does not have any felony convictions. While his assault and arson charges were originally felonies, both were prosecuted as misdemeanors.

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