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Two years in, Maryland leads most other states in use of ‘red flag’ gun law

Dorothy Paugh of Bowie holds a picture of her son, Peter. She lost both Peter and her father to suicide by firearm. She was instrumental in getting a "red flag" law passed in Maryland, which allows law enforcement to seize guns when a gun owner is deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. September 29, 2020
Dorothy Paugh of Bowie holds a picture of her son, Peter. She lost both Peter and her father to suicide by firearm. She was instrumental in getting a "red flag" law passed in Maryland, which allows law enforcement to seize guns when a gun owner is deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. September 29, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Two years after taking effect, Maryland’s extreme risk gun law has been used far more than similar laws in most states that have implemented them in recent years, according to experts and a Baltimore Sun data analysis.

Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., have enacted such so-called “red flag laws,” a term discouraged by mental health advocates due to the stigma attached to the term. Specifics of the laws vary state by state, but they generally allow law enforcement to temporarily take firearms from or ban the sale of firearms to people deemed to be a risk to themselves or others.

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In Maryland, law enforcement, family members, cohabitants, intimate partners and medical professionals can petition the court for these orders. A judge first decides whether a temporary order is warranted before a later hearing on a final order, which can take away firearms for up to a year.

Adjusted per capita and per day in effect, Maryland courts have issued the second most such orders out of the wave of states that have implemented similar laws since 2016, according to available data obtained by The Sun.

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In the two years since the law took effect Oct. 1, 2018, Maryland courts has granted 989 extreme risk protective orders, an average of about 8.2 orders per year per 100,000 residents. Only Florida has used it more, about 9.4 orders per 100,000 residents. Maryland has used it twice as much as the next-highest state, New Jersey.

The data was adjusted on a per-capita, per-day basis to account for population, how long the laws had been in effect and small discrepancies in data provided by the states. The Sun was not able to obtain complete data for Washington state in time for publication, the only state with a new law that’s missing from the analysis.

Researchers, law enforcement departments, gun safety advocates and elected officials think Maryland’s high rate of usage means the law is working to prevent potential suicides, violence and mass shootings. Gun rights groups argue it undermines due process rights.

“If these were not in place, there potentially could have been some additional suicides,” said Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin, who trained most of the state’s police departments on the law before it was implemented.

The limited research on such laws suggest they 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.

Advocates and law enforcement agencies in Maryland think the law has been used more than in other states largely due to Popkin’s leadership in providing extensive training on extreme risk protective orders.

“We’re not seeing that kind of preparation and embrace of this law as quickly as we are in Maryland,” said Shannon Frattaroli, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and expert on extreme risk protective orders. “I look right back at Sheriff Popkin and his determination to make sure this tool was on the radar of law enforcement all across the state.”

Frattaroli, Popkin, and other law enforcement agencies also credit the state’s round-the-clock court access for protective orders for its high rate of extreme risk protective order use (though the coronavirus has limited some access). Only three other states with new laws since 2016 have 24/7 access for both law enforcement and other petitioners, according to a Sun analysis of data compiled by the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“That’s a critical component,” said Darrin Palmer, chief assistant sheriff in Prince George’s County. “The issues in family violence occur across all hours and socioeconomic levels, but they don’t occur only Monday to Friday, nine to five.”

‘We can save others’

Bipartisan support — including Gov. Larry Hogan’s endorsement — for Maryland’s extreme risk law coalesced after the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting that left 17 dead on Feb. 14, 2018.

Dorothy Paugh, a Bowie resident whose 25-year-old son Peter and father both died by firearm suicide in 2012 and 1965, respectively, inspired the bill, said Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith, the bill’s primary sponsor and a Prince George’s County Democrat.

Paugh said she had no inkling that her son was suffering or would die by suicide. Witty, funny, smart and somewhat quiet, Peter received a scholarship and graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he studied environmental science. He got a job protecting water quality after graduation and bought a house with his girlfriend of five years.

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Her father, who killed himself when she was 9, was much less subtle. He bought a gun and gave her mother his will and told her of his plan several days before it happened, but no one took away the gun. Had such a law been in place, Paugh believes her father could have been saved and perhaps set a better example for her son.

“They’re water under the bridge. We can’t save them now. But we can save others that are still with us,” Paugh said. “You’re not a burden if you’re hurting. Please speak up.”

Varying usage

The Sun compared data from 12 states and the District of Columbia that implemented similar laws to Maryland’s from 2016 through 2019, except Washington state. Data from Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control and anti-gun violence group, suggest that Washington’s usage rate has been below Maryland’s.

Within Maryland, some counties have used the law more than others. In terms of raw usage, Anne Arundel County has seen the most petitions, 347, between Oct. 1, 2018, and Sept. 30, 2020, according to data compiled by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office. Baltimore County is second with 296, Prince George’s County is third with 180, Montgomery County is fourth with 159 and Harford County next with 112.

The Howard County Police Department has expanded its mental health unit to help with the law, which it says has been effective.

In Prince George’s County, most cases are related to domestic violence, not mental health, but the law has helped prevent significant injury, Palmer said. The same has been the case in Harford County, said Sgt. Paul Ruszala, who supervises the Harford County Sheriff’s office domestic violence unit.

Ruszala said the legislature “imposed” the law on departments without getting much feedback from law enforcement. He said officers must “play lawyer” in hearings over the orders, without sufficient legal knowledge. He said he thinks it would have been better to just modify current protective order laws instead of creating the new extreme risk law.

The 55% rate at which Maryland judges approve extreme risk protection orders has alarmed gun rights advocates, some of whom think the law violates due process rights. About 23% of petitions are denied, while about 21% are dismissed for failures to appear.

“It’s been a horrible law,” said Mark Pennak, president of gun rights group Maryland Shall Issue. “Take any other constitutional right — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press — and imagine a law that restricted you in the practice of that, and imagine they got it wrong 50% of the time.”

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Valentino-Smith thinks the 55% acceptance rate actually shows the law is providing due process, and that the 21% of petitions that end with failures to appear show that the law is preventing violence, she said.

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“It means the initial urgency usually gets resolved, where either a family member steps in or the person at issue gets help they need, and there is no need to continue with the final hearing,” the state lawmaker said.

Despite struggling with gun violence for decades, Baltimore City has seen just 79 petitions since the law was implemented, behind both Charles and Carroll counties, which combined have just more than half the city’s population. On a per-capita basis, the city has used it the second-least of any jurisdiction.

Liz Banach, executive director of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, thinks the Baltimore Police Department hasn’t been using the tool as often or as effectively it could be.

Banach thinks the department missed an opportunity to use it in the case of Ricky Walker Jr., who police shot in a reported mental health crisis this summer after he allegedly pointed a firearm at officers. In an incident 10 days prior, Walker was found naked with a gun he was using to reportedly fire at vehicles. Police seized one gun but didn’t take a second one registered to him.

“It was a tool they could have used when they saw this clear warning sign of a person clearly disoriented, walking around the community,” Banach said.

In general, much of the gun violence in the city isn’t committed by people with legally registered guns, complicating use of the law, as some may not want to reveal others have unregistered and/or stolen guns, wrote Lindsey Eldridge, a Baltimore Police spokesperson, in an email. Asked if the department should have taken steps to determine whether he had another weapon, she said the investigation is still “ongoing.”

Ultimately, Valentino-Smith thinks that Maryland’s law has become a model for other states.

The key, she said, is making sure “the public is aware that they have a tool they can use and be part of helping to solve this epidemic of gun violence we’re having, both with respect to suicide and what we’ve hoped we’ve prevented, too, are any mass shootings.”

This news was included in our weekday morning audio briefing on Oct. 23. Here’s how to listen.

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