Strong majorities of Americans from across the political spectrum support laws that allow family members or law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily remove guns from a person who is seen to be a risk to themselves or others, according to a new APM Research Lab/Guns & America/Call To Mind survey.
These laws, often called extreme risk protection order laws, or red flag laws, have received renewed attention after 31 people were killed during mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Variations of these red flag laws are in place in 17 states and the District of Columbia.
Since the mass shootings, President Trump and some congressional Republicans have signaled support for federal red flag legislation, though next steps in Congress are unclear at this point.
Red Flag Policies Have Broad Support
Overall, 77% of Americans surveyed support family-initiated ERPOs, and 70% support them when initiated by law enforcement, according to the survey, which was conducted before the recent Texas and Ohio shootings. There is broad support among Republicans and gun owners for these types of laws, the poll found. Two-thirds of Republicans and 60% of gun owners support allowing police to seek the court orders; higher percentages — 70% of Republicans and 67% of gun owners — support allowing family members to seek them.
There is broad support among men and women, but there is a gender gap — with more women in favor of red flag laws than men. There are also regional differences, with a smaller percentage in the West (though still a majority) supportive of these laws. Support for the laws also increases the higher the level of educational attainment.
A topic of compromise
Experts describe a few reasons that a variety of people would support ERPO laws, even some who might generally be against gun control. Cassandra Crifasi, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, points to the “temporary component.” This means that once the temporary order expires, the person is then able to ask the judge to return his or her weapons.
“I think the other piece is that it’s not focused on all gun owners. It’s focused on gun owners who are exhibiting risky behaviors,” Crifasi said. “I think we can reasonably agree that someone who is posting online about committing a mass shooting or someone who is sharing with a family member or a friend that they’re thinking about harming themselves, that’s someone that we would want to separate from firearms.”
Amy Swearer, a senior legal policy analyst at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, describes ERPO laws as a type of “intermediate measure.” Data from Connecticut, a state that has had one of these laws since 1999, show that it has been used to remove firearms in all kinds of situations: violent threats against school officials, co-workers, wives, girlfriends and children and, especially, cases of possible suicide.
“These individuals, whether they haven’t committed a crime yet or they haven’t quite gotten within the radar of the mental health system … they’re still able to legally purchase and possess firearms,” Swearer explained. “So, these laws give another avenue of intervening in those instances before these people act on those signs of dangerousness.”
Despite support, opposition remains
Roughly 1 in 7 respondents “strongly oppose” red flag laws, according to the survey results. That’s higher among gun owners: 24% percent of gun owners “strongly oppose” police-initiated ERPOs, and 20% “strongly oppose” family-initiated ERPOs.
Broadened to include respondents who “somewhat oppose” red flag laws, 27% of respondents overall oppose police-initiated ERPOs, while 21% oppose family-initiated ones.
Respondents living in Southern and Western states reported the highest levels of opposition to ERPO laws.
Some opposition is likely born out of the general rhetoric around the gun debate related to “serious distrust” and “seizing guns,” Swearer explained. One Colorado-based gun rights group, for instance, refers to the state’s recently passed red flag law as a “Gun Confiscation Scheme.”
Local sheriffs have indicated they’ll refuse to enforce it once it goes into effect in 2020, saying the law violates the Second Amendment and due process and doesn’t have a mental health care component.
In a February Facebook post, when the bill that led to the law was being considered, Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Gun Owners urged its supporters to attend a Colorado House Judiciary Committee hearing on the state’s bill.