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Two years in, Carroll County using ‘red flag’ gun seizure law at one of highest rates in Maryland

About two years after Maryland instituted its extreme risk protective order law that can take away guns from those deemed to be a threat to themselves or others, Carroll County has used the law among the most per capita in the state, according to a Times data analysis.

The law, commonly known as a “red flag” law in a term discouraged by mental health advocates, was passed after 17 people were killed and another 17 were wounded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018.

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Law enforcement agencies, family members, intimate partners and medical professionals may petition for the orders, which can prevent a person from buying and possessing firearms and can require them to surrender firearms to law enforcement for up to a year. A judge may opt to issue a temporary order before a final order hearing, usually within seven days of the temporary order being issued.

Research is limited thus far, but past research has suggested that such laws can slow firearm suicides. A 2017 Duke University study of Connecticut’s risk-based gun removal law estimated that for every 10 to 20 gun seizures, one suicide is prevented.

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Between when the law was implemented on Oct. 1, 2018, and Sept. 30, 2020, 97 extreme risk protection petitions have been filed in the county, the fifth-highest per-capita rate among the 23 Maryland counties and Baltimore City, according to data compiled by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office. Carroll County has received more petitions than in Baltimore City, which has seen 79 petitions despite having a population well over three times the size of the county.

Carroll County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Jonathan Light attributes the trend to the county’s high rate of legal gun ownership. Some law enforcement representatives say the law is working to prevent violence, while others have questioned whether it infringes on due process rights.

The Hampstead Police Department used the extreme risk protection order once this year, police Chief David Snyder said. He doesn’t “necessarily take a position one way or another” on the law, he said, but doesn’t agree with criticism that it infringes on the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

“The process has sufficient safeguards to ensure they are not issued without the appropriate review,” Snyder said.

Although he thinks it makes sense to keep firearms away from those with “ill intent,” he does think the process has some limitations. The credibility of threats has to be assessed, Snyder said.

“Policing is the business of dealing with the more difficult aspects of the human experience, and we do it with human beings. When we have some type of emotional event where an individual makes threats, we need to assess the credibility of that,” Snyder said. “An individual who was just unexpectedly fired from his job will be angry, and may say things that are simply impulsive because they are understandably angry, should not be viewed in the same manner as an individual with severe mental health issues and is clearly decompensating.”

Overall, though, the concept behind the law is appropriate, he said. Carroll County’s mobile crisis behavioral health unit has been helpful, Snyder said, as the Hampstead Police Department has used it in order to assist with interviews and assessments. That unit, whose members are trained in mental health disciplines, responds to incidents to help people in crisis, he said.

The orders last different lengths of time depending on the type. Temporary orders can last up to six months, whereas final orders can last up to a year. Not all cases are brought to final order hearings. About 74% of final orders brought to final hearings are approved in Carroll County, according to a Times data analysis.

That rate seems too high for state Del. Haven Shoemaker, a Republican who represents Carroll County.

“I still have fundamental due process concerns about the ease with which folks can get these red flag orders and have people’s firearms confiscated,” he said. “Frankly, it was that concern which prompted me to vote against that law a couple of years ago. It’s a process that can be readily abused.”

All time, 91 extreme risk protective orders cases were filed in the county through August and 50 final orders were implemented through this period, the latest available data broken down by county the Times analyzed.

The Westminster Police Department and the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office are among those using the law frequently.

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Since the law was enacted, Westminster police petitioned for a total of 21 extreme risk protective orders, including 13 in 2020. The Sheriff’s Office served 40 orders thus far, Light said.

Westminster police Chief Thomas Ledwell said that if the law can prevent someone with access to a firearm from endangering themselves or others, it’s good for public safety, though “It’s hard to state the efficacy of something that prevents something from happening.”

“We don’t have a baseline of violent events, fortunately, to compare it to,” Ledwell said, “so it’s hard to say whether it prevented something from happening or not happening.”

Most of the cases the department is involved with are circumstances when an individual who has access to a firearm says they are suicidal, Ledwell said.

The process has been “very time-consuming” for staff, as it can take two officers up to six hours to go through the process.

“That’s the most difficult part of the process for us, the time-consuming nature,” Ledwell said. “But obviously if it’s going to prevent an incident of violence, then we’re going to do what we need to do.”

At the Sheriff’s Office, deputies are expected to “investigate and substantiate any claims before applying for or serving an order,” Light said.

“We also expect deputies work with gun owners to properly safeguard their weapons and return them undamaged and within the time the law or orders allow,” he said.

Some departments haven’t yet used the law.

The Mount Airy Police Department hasn’t had any relevant cases and thus hasn’t been involved in enforcement, Chief Douglas W. Reitz said. The Sykesville Police Department hasn’t had to use any extreme risk protective orders since the law went into effect, Chief Michael Spaulding said.

Manchester Police Department Chief John Hess said the department has “thankfully” not had any direct involvement in extreme risk protective order cases, so he said he doesn’t have any first-hand knowledge.

“The law is designed to save lives, and I’m certain in our county the orders are being issued appropriately to do just that,” Hess said.

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The Taneytown Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.

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