A ‘red flag’ gun law would save lives. Will NC do the right thing this time?

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The Editorial Board
·3 min read
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They’re called “red flag” bills – proposals to confiscate the guns of mentally unstable people – but in North Carolina they end up more like white flag bills.

Lawmakers propose the change, then have to surrender to Republican opposition. Gun rights advocates worry that this sensible – indeed urgent – call to take guns from people who have been deemed a threat to themselves or others would take away firearms without sufficient due process and would encourage further restrictions on the right to bear arms.

Nonetheless, Democrats have decided to persist in calling for North Carolina to adopt a red flag law, just as 19 states and Washington, D.C., have done. Three Democrats, Reps. Marcia Morey of Durham, John Autry, of Charlotte, and Grier Martin, of Wake County, filed House Bill 525 on April 8, the same day President Joe Biden called for new limits on firearms.

Martin concedes that gaining enough Republican support to pass the measure is unlikely – similar bills failed in 2018 and 2019 – but he thinks it is useful to keep pressing an issue that the public supports and Republicans may soon have to acknowledge.

“It’s very important to keep this conversation going,” Martin told the Editorial Board. He said House Bill 525 shows there is a way to protect people without curtailing Second Amendment rights “and this is exactly what it would look like.”

The law would allow a family member, a current or former spouse or partner, law enforcement or a health-care provider to request an extreme risk protection order (ERPO), a court order similar to those issued in domestic violence cases. The ERPO would allow guns to be temporarily confiscated from someone deemed a danger to themselves or others. A court hearing in which all involved parties can participate would determine whether the order is to be lifted or extended.

The wisdom of this process is obvious. The U.S. is awash in guns and shootings ranging from domestic violence to mass shootings represent what Biden called an “epidemic” and “a national embarrassment.”

Recent mass shootings in Atlanta, Boulder, Col., and Rock Hill, S.C., called fresh attention to gun violence. But red flag laws have their greatest effect on more commonplace types of gun violence, domestic violence and suicide, which accounts for the majority of U.S. gun deaths.

Jeffrey Swanson, a Duke University sociologist and professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said in a 2019 Washington Post op-ed that while mass shootings spark calls for red flag laws, the laws once put into practice are most often applied to people who are thought to be suicidal.

The professor wrote that taking away guns can have a significant effect on suicide deaths.

“People who try to end their lives by other means usually survive; if they use a gun, there is almost never a second chance,” Swanson wrote. “This is why a mere shift in the distribution of suicide methods — away from guns to more survivable means — could save many lives.”

While rare, he added, a red-flag intervention involving a suicidal person might also stop someone who is planning a mass shooting.

This session House Bill 525 may not make it into law. But the Democrats sense that a breakthrough will come. Martin said the “intractable logjam” blocking modest gun safety measures may give way quickly, similar to the change on the once polarizing issue of same-sex marriage. “The public seems to be getting closer and closer on that sort of shift on safety,” he said.

There’s every reason to think North Carolinians would be better off if family members, police and the courts had more authority to intervene when people with guns appear to be an immediate danger to themselves or others.

Republicans in other states have supported red flag laws. North Carolina Republicans should, too.