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What is a ‘red flag’ law and how has it worked in Maryland and elsewhere?

After mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, there’s been pressure on lawmakers around the country to enact more gun violence prevention measures. So-called “red flag” laws are among proposals that gain steam after such tragedies. The aim is to keep guns out of the hands of people who pose an immediate threat to themselves and others. Maryland’s red flag law took effect last year, after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Shannon Frattaroli, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, took part in a gun violence task force after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. The panel recommended use of red flag orders — formally called extreme-risk protection orders. She explains how they work.


What are extreme-risk protection orders?

The laws allow law enforcement and, in many cases, certain family members to petition a court to forbid someone exhibiting dangerous behaviors — such as amassing weapons, making threats or planning violence — from possessing or buying guns. A judge generally decides on a short-term emergency petition and a longer-term petition, usually lasting no more than a year.

The orders expand on domestic violence laws that in some states had already allowed law enforcement to temporarily prevent someone from possessing a gun.


The red flag orders are often mischaracterized as solely aimed at taking guns from people with mental health disorders — who Frattaroli said are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of gun violence. The red flag orders focus on individuals displaying dangerous behaviors.

“There is more evidence that focusing on behaviors can be very effective in preventing violence," she said. “These orders are for people acting out while in a crisis."

Which states have laws and how are they different?

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws, primarily since 2012.

All of them allow law enforcement to petition the courts. Many states also allow family members and intimate partners to seek an order. The Maryland law is considered among the strongest because it also allows some health care providers and social workers to petition the court and permits requests any day or time.

In New York, school administrators can petition for an order. In Hawaii, a co-worker can. States also have different standards of proof or lengths of time that people are banned from having guns.

How many petitions have there been in Maryland?

Since the law went into effect Oct. 1, Maryland’s judiciary has fielded 788 requests, or about 80 a month, to remove firearms from individuals, according to data provided by Montgomery County Sheriff Darren M. Popkin.

Anne Arundel County, where the Capital Gazette newspaper office shooting occurred last year, had the most petitions at 128. Harford County, which had a mass shooting at a Rite Aid warehouse last year, had 70 requests.

In the Baltimore area, the city of Baltimore, which has the highest rate of gun violence in the state, had 29. Baltimore County had 118 and Carroll had 32.


Only Kent County on the Eastern Shore had no petitions.

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About half the requests statewide have come from family and half from law enforcement, Popkin said.

Overall, courts granted about half the requests.

Popkin said the majority of the orders do involve someone with mental health problems who is in the middle of a crisis related to domestic violence or suicide threats.

By contrast, California, with about five times the population as Maryland but a more restrictive law, issued 86 orders in 2016, according to The Trace, a nonprofit news organization covering guns in the U.S.

What does the evidence show?

Frattaroli said that it’s not possible to say how many potential victims of mass shootings were saved by the laws. But there is evidence that the laws are preventing gun violence.


Research largely comes from Connecticut and Indiana, where there were versions of the red flag orders before 2012, and from states with domestic violence laws that include prohibitions on guns. Early red flag data suggests a reduction in intimate partner homicides and suicides, which account for the most gun deaths.

Frattaroli said researchers will be tracking the trajectory of gun violence in states with red flag orders as one way to assess the orders’ effectiveness at preventing mass shootings and other violence.