Chicago is one of the nation’s gun violence hotspots and a seemingly ideal place to employ Illinois’ “red flag” law that allows police to step in and take firearms away from people who threaten to kill. But amid more than 8,500 shootings resulting in 1,800 deaths since 2020, the law was used there just four times.
It’s a pattern that’s played out in New Mexico, with nearly 600 gun homicides during that period and a mere eight uses of its red flag law. And in Massachusetts, with nearly 300 shooting homicides and just 12 uses of its law.
An Associated Press analysis found many U.S. states barely use the red flag laws touted as the most powerful tool to stop gun violence before it happens, a trend blamed on a lack of awareness of the laws and resistance by some authorities to enforce them even as shootings and gun deaths soar.
AP found such laws in 19 states and the District of Columbia were used to remove firearms from people 15,049 times since 2020, fewer than 10 per 100,000 adult residents. Experts called that woefully low and not nearly enough to make a dent in gun violence, considering the millions of firearms in circulation and countless potential warning signs law enforcement officers encounter from gun owners every day.
“It’s too small a pebble to make a ripple,” Duke University sociologist Jeffrey Swanson, who has studied red flag gun surrender orders across the nation, said of the AP tally. “It’s as if the law doesn’t exist.”
“The number of people we are catching with red flags is likely infinitesimal,” added Indiana University law professor Jody Madeira, who like other experts who reviewed AP’s findings wouldn’t speculate how many red flag removal orders would be necessary to make a difference.
The search for solutions comes amid a string of mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, Uvalde, Texas, and Highland Park, Illinois, and a spike in gun violence not seen in decades: 27,000 deaths so far this year, following 45,000 deaths each of the past two years.
AP’s count, compiled from inquiries and Freedom of Information Law requests, showed wide disparities in how the laws were applied from state to state, county to county, most without regard to population or crime rates.
Florida led with 5,800 such orders, or 34 per 100,000 adult residents, but that is due mostly to aggressive enforcement in a few counties that don’t include Miami-Dade and others with more gun killings. More than a quarter of Illinois’ slim 154 orders came from one suburban county that makes up just 7% of the state’s population. California had 3,197 orders but was working through a backlog of three times that number of people barred from owning guns under a variety of measures who had not yet surrendered them.
And a national movement among politicians and sheriffs that has declared nearly 2,000 counties as “Second Amendment Sanctuaries,” opposing laws that infringe on gun rights, may have affected red flag enforcement in several states. In Colorado, 37 counties that consider themselves “sanctuaries” issued just 45 surrender orders in the two years through last year, a fifth fewer than non-sanctuary counties did per resident. New Mexico and Nevada reported only about 20 orders combined.
“The law shouldn’t even be there in the first place,” argued Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff who heads the pro-gun Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. “You’re taking away someone’s property and means of self-defense.”
Red flag laws, most of which came into effect over the last four years, allow police officers who believe gun owners are an imminent danger to themselves or others to petition a judge to order firearms surrendered or, barring that, seized for an “emergency” period, typically two weeks. The judge can then convene a court hearing in which petitioners present evidence to withhold weapons longer, typically a year, and the owner can argue against that.
AP’s tally counts an emergency order that is followed by a longer one as a single order if they involve the same gun owner. In rare cases where no one asked for an emergency order and only a longer one was requested and granted, that also counts as a single order. Several states reported incomplete data.
Some states also allow family members of gun owners, school officials, work colleagues or doctors to ask for gun removal orders, also known as extreme risk protection orders. But data reviewed by the AP show nearly all petitions in several states were initiated by police, possibly because, as several surveys have shown, few people outside law enforcement are even aware the laws exist.
The recent spike in shootings has brought renewed attention to red flag laws, with states including Alaska, Pennsylvania and Kentucky introducing legislation to add them. The Biden administration is seeking to foster wider use of red flag laws by allocating money in a newly passed federal gun law to help spread the word about such measures.
An AP-NORC poll in late July found 78% of U.S. adults strongly or somewhat favor red flag laws, but the backlash against them has been intense in some states, particularly in rural areas. Opponents argue that allowing judges to rule on gun seizures in initial emergency petitions before full hearings violates due process rights, though court cases claiming this have generally found the laws constitutional.
Many police believe seizing guns can also be dangerous and unnecessary, even as a last resort, especially in sparsely populated areas where they know many of the residents with mental health issues, said Tony Mace, head of the New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association, which lobbied against the state’s law.
“You’re showing up with 10 to 15 law enforcement officers and coming in the middle of the night and kicking in the door, and it’s already a dangerous environment,” said Mace, sheriff of Cibola County, a sanctuary county with just one order since 2020. “You’re dealing with someone in crisis and elevating it even more.”
One fierce gun rights defender who still aggressively uses the law is Polk County, Florida, Sheriff Grady Judd, who says he doesn’t let his beliefs stand in the way of moving fast when gun owners threaten violence.
“We’re not going to wait for an Uvalde, Texas, or a Parkland or a Columbine if we have the information and people say that they’re going to shoot or kill,” said Judd, who enforced 752 orders since 2020 in a county of 725,000 residents, a tally that’s more than the total orders for 15 entire states. “We’re going to use the tools that the state gave us.”
Florida’s traditionally pro-gun Republican-led legislature passed its red flag law in 2018 following revelations police failed to act on repeated threats by an expelled student who would go on to carry out the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland earlier that year that left 17 people dead.
A recent high-profile example of a red flag law not being used was for the 21-year-old gunman accused of fatally shooting seven people and injuring dozens more at a Fourth of July parade in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. Robert E. Crimo III drew police attention three years earlier when he threatened to “kill everyone” in his house and officers acknowledged going to the home several times previously because of a “history of attempts” to take his own life.
But Highland Park police never requested a gun surrender order, saying there was no gun belonging to Crimo to take away at the time, even though the law has a provision to block threatening people from making future purchases, too.
Illinois state Rep. Denyse Stoneback said there has clearly been a problem with awareness of the law among those tasked with carrying it out. “We’d go to police departments and they didn’t know anything about it,” said the Democrat who helped push through a bill last year providing $1 million in police red flag law training.
Asked why Chicago had so few red flag firearm restraining orders, police spokesman Thomas Ahern said many of the city’s gun killings are committed with illegally owned firearms.
But Ahern emphasized it remained a priority of the department to increase its awareness and use of the red flag law. “If we are able to prevent one citizen from getting hurt or killed that’s a law worth having and definitely not a low priority,” he said.
In New York, a red flag-type situation that wasn’t covered under the state’s law nonetheless led to a spike in red flag gun surrender orders.
Payton Gendron was a 17-year-old high school senior last year when he was investigated by New York’s State Police and ordered hospitalized for a mental health evaluation for typing into an economics class online program that his future plans included “murder-suicide.” But since he was a minor, he wasn’t covered under the state’s red flag law and it didn’t prevent him from later buying the high-powered rifle authorities say he used to kill 10 Black people in a racially-motivated shooting at Buffalo supermarket in May.
Since then, New York has seen 779 gun surrender orders under its red flag law, equal to nearly half of all its orders since the measure took effect three years ago.
Several experts said it’s impossible to come up with an ideal number of red flag orders and misleading to compare states by orders because of the widely varying rates of gun ownership and gun homicides and suicides, among other stats.
Another complicating factor is that some states have stricter gun ownerships rules and multiple ways to seize firearms. In California, for instance, guns can be taken away through domestic violence restraining orders, civil harassment protection orders and school violence prevention orders in addition to the red flag law.
Still, experts consulted by AP agreed more could be done to enforce red flag laws given the prevalence of guns and the millions of gun owners that national studies suggest could be dangerous to themselves and others. In red flag states alone, figures compiled by the Gun Violence Archive show at least 21,100 homicides and 47,000 injuries during the 2-½ years covered by AP’s count.
Several studies suggest red flag laws can be particularly effective in preventing gun suicides, which kill about 20,000 people a year. A Duke University study of Connecticut’s-first-in-the-nation red flag law in 1999 estimated that for every 10 to 20 surrender orders a life from a potential suicide was saved. A study of Indiana’s law came up with a similar ratio.
While the impact of red flag laws on homicides is less well researched, studies suggest many mass shootings could be avoided if the laws were implemented aggressively. A study by the gun-control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety showed perpetrators exhibited dangerous warning signs before more than half of the mass shootings in the dozen years through 2020 that accounted for 596 deaths.
Such warning signs have led to many opportunities to stop gun violence, as well as missed chances.
In Colorado in 2020, police seized 59 guns from a man who complained of hit men coming to get him, bragged about shooting someone and repeatedly threatened his ex-wife.
In New Jersey in 2019, police took seven guns from a man threatening on Facebook to attack a Walmart.
And in Washington state in 2018, police removed 12 guns from the home of a man who posted on social media about killing Jews in a synagogue and kids in a school.
None of those threatened shootings happened.
But in Indianapolis in 2020, failure to employ all aspects of a red flag law resulted in disaster. After 18-year-old Brandon Hole’s mother alerted police that he was threatening to commit “suicide by cop,” police seized his pump-action shotgun. A county prosecutor could have gone further under the law to argue before a judge that Hole should be barred from possessing or buying a gun, but that never happened.
A few months later, Hole bought two AR-style rifles at a gun store, turning to his mother and saying, “They don’t have a flag on me.” Several months after that, he fatally shot eight employees in a FedEx warehouse where he had worked and injured seven more before killing himself.
“I feel the state of Indiana is an accessory to murder,” a wounded Angela Hughley told the Indianapolis Star shortly after the shooting.
Amber Clark, a librarian in Sacramento, California, might still be alive today if police had acted on a tip that Ronald Seay was armed and dangerous.
The gunman’s twin brother called police in 2018 warning that Seay, who had a history of mental illness and trouble with police, was making violent threats and had two semiautomatic pistols. But the police never went to a judge to ask for a gun surrender order or tell the sibling that he could do that himself.
A few weeks later, Seay unloaded 11 bullets into Clark’s face and head at pointblank range outside the Sacramento library.
“It is obvious to me and my family that the application of California’s red flag law in this case would have saved two lives – Amber’s and the shooter’s – and prevented immeasurable grief,” said her husband, Kelly Clark. “My wife would still be alive and the killer would have received the help he needed instead of being condemned to life in prison.”