Jun 2, 2022

Red flag laws.

Red flag laws.

Congress is considering a set of red flag laws right now.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

Red flag laws. Plus, a question about political extremism.

The states in the U.S. with red flag laws (in red) and the one state (Oklahoma) that has an anti-red flag. Image: Wikicommons

35,000+ and 6,000+

This week, Tangle broke 35,000 readers on our free mailing list and 6,000 paying subscribers. Along with avoiding burnout, managing stress and trying to infuse some rational dialogue into our politics, I'm a big fan of celebrating milestones. So I just wanted to say thank you.

It's been almost three years since I started this project, and when I sent the first newsletter to 50 friends and family, I truly never imagined it was going to turn into this: A politically diverse readership in all 50 states and over 50 countries outside the U.S., including hundreds of notable folks in the political world. Best of all, a growing team here at Tangle.

Now, amazingly, it feels reasonable to dream about a million readers and tens of thousands of paying subscribers. It's a dream come true. Thank you.

Quick hits.

  1. The Biden administration canceled $5.8 billion in student loan debt for former students of the now defunct Corinthian Colleges, the largest one-time discharge of student debt ever. (The forgiveness)
  2. A gunman opened fire inside a Tulsa, Oklahoma, medical building, killing at least four people before shooting himself. (The shooting)
  3. John Hinckley Jr., who tried to assassinate former President Ronald Reagan in 1981, was released from court-ordered psychiatric supervision today and will be free from all remaining restrictions on June 18. (The release)
  4. The U.S. says it will send advanced rocket systems to Ukraine as part of a $700 million military aid package. (The package)
  5. The United States will airlift more baby formula from abroad as shortages continue to worsen across the country. (The shortage)
  6. BREAKING: Michael Avenatti received a 4-year prison term for defrauding Stormy Daniels, the porn actor he represented in battles with Trump.

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

Gun control. Since the shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, members of Congress have begun discussing legislation to address gun control. The talks began with a bipartisan group of senators led by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and John Cornyn (R-TX). Now, House Democrats say they are considering eight gun-related bills they're calling the Protecting Our Kids Act. The House Democrats’ legislation is unlikely to gain any traction in the Senate, but this is what the bills would do if passed, according to Punchbowl News:

The omnibus package includes bills to raise the purchasing age for semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21; ban the import, sale, manufacture, transfer or possession of high-capacity ammunition magazines, although existing magazines are “grandfathered” in; requires existing bump stocks be registered under the National Firearms Act and bars the manufacture, sale, or possession of new bump stocks for civilian use; amends the definition of “ghost guns” to require background checks on all sales, as ATF is trying to do through rulemaking; beefs up federal criminal penalties for gun trafficking and “straw purchases”; and establishes new requirements for storing guns at home – especially with minors present – while providing tax credits for storage devices.

Separately, members of the Senate are working together to adopt a set of red flag laws or create incentives for states to adopt them, as well as more expansive background checks. Though they vary in kind, 19 states already have red flag laws in the U.S. They are also sometimes called extreme risk protection orders (ERPO), gun violence restraining orders, or severe threat orders of protection.

How they work: Generally speaking, "red flag" laws allow local police, family members, school officials or prosecutors to petition a court to confiscate someone's weapon if they appear to be a risk to themselves or others. Laws vary in how the charges are processed, who can report someone, and whether the guns can be confiscated immediately or if there needs to be a hearing of some kind beforehand. But they often involve bringing a petition to a judge who authorizes law enforcement to confiscate someone's firearm(s) for days, weeks, months or, in some cases, years.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC) and Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT) have been in talks about red flag legislation. They first drafted a red flag bill in 2019 and say they are now updating it in an attempt to garner more support in the Senate. Graham and Blumenthal told CBS their discussions are making progress.

According to CBS, the two are working on provisions to allow proper due process and judicial review for confiscation that is acceptable to Republicans but not so ineffective that the bill loses support from Democrats. Meanwhile, President Biden has said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is "rational" and expressed hope he would encourage his caucus to pass something. Other senators involved in the talks include Democrats Joe Manchin (WV), Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), and Martin Heinrich (NM), as well as Republicans Susan Collins (ME), Pat Toomey (PA), and Bill Cassidy (LA).

For the purposes of today's piece, we're going to focus on red flag laws, since that looks like the legislative solution that has the best chance of success in the near future.

We'll take a look at some arguments from the right and left, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • The right is divided on national red flag laws, though most oppose them.
  • Some warn about due process or suggest state red flag laws could work, while national ones won't.
  • Others argue that red flag laws are the best solution we've got.

In Reason, Jacob Sullum said there is still little evidence red flag laws work, and lots of reason to believe innocent people will have their rights violated.

"New York's law, which took effect in 2019, allows a long list of people to seek such orders. Potential petitioners include police officers, prosecutors, blood relatives, in-laws, current and former spouses, current and former housemates, current and former girlfriends or boyfriends, people who have produced a child with the respondent, and school administrators or their designees, such as teachers, coaches, and guidance counselors. The 'school personnel' covered by the law can report a former student if he graduated within the previous six months," Sullum wrote. "Judges may consider 'any evidence,' and respondents have no right to legal representation if they cannot afford it. Nor do they have a civil cause of action against petitioners who lie, a potentially significant problem in light of all the people who are allowed to file a petition. The lack of such a deterrent increases the risk that an in-law, cousin, ex-spouse, ex-girlfriend, or former housemate with a grudge will abuse this process.

"The very concept of 'red flags' assumes that experts can reliably distinguish between harmless oddballs and future murderers. But there is little basis for that assumption," Sullum said. "A 2012 study that the Department of Defense commissioned after the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood in Texas includes an appendix titled 'Prediction: Why It Won't Work.' The appendix observes that 'low-base-rate events with high consequence pose a management challenge.' In the case of 'targeted violence,' for example, 'there may be pre-existing behavior markers that are specifiable.' But 'while such markers may be sensitive, they are of low specificity and thus carry the baggage of an unavoidable false alarm rate, which limits feasibility of prediction-intervention strategies.' In other words, even if certain red flags are common among mass shooters, almost none of the people who display those signs are bent on murderous violence."

The National Review editorial board said "say no" to national red flag laws.

"We have urged states to consider such laws. If carefully crafted, they can provide law enforcement and families a tool to potentially prevent a disturbed person from acquiring firearms to carry out a devastating attack," the editors said. "But the federal level is a different matter. First of all, our constitutional system expressly separates the responsibilities of the federal government and the responsibilities of the states, and, absent an amendment that empowers it do so, the federal government lacks any authority to remove legally owned firearms from individuals whom it suspects may be dangerous at some point in the future. If one squints, one can find in the Commerce Clause certain powers to regulate the transportation, importation, and interstate sale of firearms. One cannot find the power to superintend their possession. Under no circumstances should that power be claimed.

"Legalities aside, it would be a mistake for the federal government to try to create and administer a red-flag system itself," it added. "If such laws are to work effectively, it will be because the government that administers them inspires confidence and is close and accessible to the people availing themselves of the laws. There is far too much distance between the federal government and the citizenry for this to work at a national level. There is a reason that Florida’s red-flag law — which was passed after the 2018 Parkland shooting — is run on a county-by-county basis, and administered by local police, and that reason is that, in this matter, local is better. The FBI is not set up to execute such a system, and the federal courts are not set up to adjudicate it. And, even if they were, Americans would be right to oppose elevating yet another question to the national level."

David French said we should pass and enforce red flag laws now.

"The idea is simple—if a person exhibits behavior indicating that they might be a threat to themselves or others (such as suicidal ideation or violent fantasies), a member of his family, a school official, or a police officer can go to court to secure an order that permits police to seize his weapons and prohibit him from purchasing any additional weapons so long as the order lasts," French said. "A well-drafted red flag law should contain abundant procedural safeguards, including imposing a burden of proof on the petitioner, hearing requirements, and a default expiration date unless the order is renewed through a clear showing of continued need. But its potential effectiveness is crystal clear.

"But it’s not enough just to pass a red flag law. We have to educate citizens and police about their existence and scope. Laws don’t enforce themselves. Tragically, it appears that New York’s red flag law could have stopped the Buffalo mass shooting," he said. "I know the objections. I know that red flag laws implicate a core constitutional right. I also know that poorly drafted laws are subject to abuse. But our constitutional structure permits emergency and temporary deprivations of even core liberty interests upon sufficient showing of need, with sufficient due process. Restraining orders and other forms of domestic violence prevention orders can often block parents and spouses even from their own families upon a showing of imminent threat."

What the left is saying.

  • The left mostly supports red flag laws, arguing there is evidence they work.
  • Many contend they can limit both suicides and mass shootings.
  • Some argue they are a far stronger proposal than anything else Republicans would support.

In The Washington Post, Lizette Alvarez said Florida's red flag law could help nationally.

"It is useful that the law focuses on specific behavior — is the person stockpiling firearms while planning a shooting? Has the person made alarming statements or social-media posts? — rather than simply on mental illness, which is relatively common and seldom leads to violence," Alvarez wrote. "The laws, modeled after domestic-violence orders of protection, are not foolproof... More funding for red-flag laws is needed to raise awareness among residents and help inform and train police departments. [Ft. Lauderdale detective Christopher] Carita said the law has saved lives. He remembers one case in which a mother noticed her son’s rage and drove him to a doctor.

"The young man was hospitalized after he told the doctor he wanted to 'kill some people,' as Carita recalled. That’s when the police unit became involved. 'We learned he had already purchased an AK-47 pistol, known as a Draco, and it was being held at the gun store on the three-day wait period, so he hadn’t received it yet,' Carita told me. Carita’s unit secured an extreme-risk protection order and worked with his family," Alvarez said. "Two months later, the man tried to buy another Draco, but the order flagged him and a background check blocked the sale. The man benefited from counseling and the buffer provided by the red flag that had allowed his anger to subside, Carita said. 'He is now back with his family, working and living his life.'"

Bloomberg's editorial board said red flag laws can make a difference.

"They aren’t infallible: Nothing could be in a country awash with guns. But more than half of mass shooters exhibited clear warning signs before committing their crimes, which makes such laws worthwhile," the editors said. "When it comes to gun control, the combination of efficacy and feasibility is rare. Policy makers should seize the moment. Opponents of red-flag laws call them unfair because they lack due process. In truth, they’re no more burdensome than traditional domestic-protection laws, found in all 50 states. No one’s guns are taken away without a judge’s approval. If a temporary seizure is approved, another hearing is convened within weeks to allow the recipient of the order to offer a defense. In turn, the reporting parties must make their case for extending the order. The process isn’t foolproof but, given the stakes, it’s surely a fair one.

"A more pressing concern is whether such laws really work. They’re now on the books of 19 states, but they’re relatively new, so it’s hard to be sure just yet. Still, the research so far is encouraging," the editors wrote. "In Connecticut, which enacted one of the first red-flag laws, a study estimated that one life has been saved for every 10 to 20 protection orders issued. A California study looked at 21 orders issued against individuals who’d made mass shooting threats and found no violence subsequently attributed to any of them... The police need to be trained to apply such orders — and the general public needs to be made aware. Legal ambiguities also need to be cleared up. The Buffalo shooter was a minor at the time of his mental-health evaluation and hence forbidden to buy a gun in any case; perhaps the authorities thought the red-flag law was therefore irrelevant."

In Slate, Alex Yablon said the GOP's only answer to school shootings — a good guy with a gun — doesn't actually help.

"Last year, a group of public health scholars published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association examining 133 school shootings from 1980 to 2019. An armed guard was present in about a quarter of the incidents in the study. Those schools actually suffered death rates nearly three times higher than schools without armed guards. Similarly, a 2020 review of gun policy research by the RAND Corporation think tank found no evidence that the presence of more guns had any effect on gun violence. Criminologists at Texas State University found that unarmed staff or the shooters themselves are far more likely to bring a school shooting to an end than someone with a gun returning fire.

"Good guys with guns fail to stop bad guys with guns in the moment because mass shootings are rare, surprising, and unpredictable events," Yablon wrote. "Red flag laws are effective because mass shooters are, by contrast, pretty predictable: They almost always display clear warning signs that they are a danger to society and themselves. The Uvalde shooter was no exception: According to friends, he engaged in self-harm, shot a BB gun at strangers, and expressed a desire to kill. He also posted frequently on social media about his desire for guns. If Texas had the appropriate legal machinery in place, the people in the shooter’s life who had been so alarmed by his behavior might have had an opportunity to act before it was too late."

My take.

Just last week, a reader asked me what I thought about red flag laws, and why I didn't touch on them in my initial piece about Uvalde. I said that I saw the pros and cons pretty clearly, and "since I had no definitive position" I didn’t think it was worth addressing yet. After another week of getting to read how these arguments play out, I think my position is a bit clearer.

For starters, I just want to reiterate what I already wrote: I think the most important, pressing issue is creating more friction in gun sales. My suggestion was something that more closely resembles how we handle cars, which is to require licensing, training and registration. I've yet to hear a compelling argument as to why this solution lacks merit, and given that I don't know a single person who feels the government is overly burdensome about how they restrict someone's ability to drive, I don't really buy the argument that such a system would be outside the bounds of the Second Amendment.

But there is obviously a big gaping hole in that idea: What about the 400 million guns already on the street? On the surface, I think red flag laws are a good answer to that problem.

As I've said over and over, when these shootings happen I often think about levels of responsibility. At the top is the shooter themselves, which goes without saying. Next, usually, are the people who I think bear some responsibility for not flagging a potential shooter's behavior or supporting a person in crisis: family, friends, teachers, etc. Then it's the institution's job (courts, local police and healthcare facilities, usually) to act on those warnings and protect the community. When any one of those layers fails, there is often also good reason to blame the loose laws that made it so easy for a potential shooter to get a gun.

My proposal of car-like restrictions does a lot to address this final layer. I like the concept of red flag laws because they shore up the first and second layers. They make it harder for a person who already has a gun to do something bad with it, and they make it easier for family, friends and teachers to work with police and authorities to act on suspicion that someone may be a threat to themselves or others. We know pretty assuredly that mass shooters usually show signs and often don't intend to survive their events.

If, for example, I had a friend who I knew was in crisis, had made threats about taking their own lives or the life of someone else, and I also knew they owned a gun, I'd feel a lot better if I lived in a state where I had legal support and guidance to separate that friend from their weapon.

Given that more than half of all gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides, it's also worth pointing out that these laws don't just protect the lives of other people in public spaces; they can also protect the lives of gun owners themselves. In fact, much of the research on red flag laws shows the most demonstrable impact is related to suicides. It's hard for me to comprehend how this is anything but a huge net positive. Even the argument that the research isn't definitive (yet) strikes me as odd. If the results are neutral to positive, let's expand the program and keep studying it to see what happens, especially given the common sense reasoning and anecdotal proof it’s doing some good.

Will there be costs? Of course. I'm sure some people will attempt to abuse the system, perhaps by falsifying reports to punish someone they have a grudge against. The solution, though, is not to bail on the idea — it's to put in place serious repercussions for falsifying such reports. And to ensure there is a healthy (and timely) due process. Florida's model seems like a strong one for any American town, and in more liberal states there could be a more robust system. Either way, I imagine situations where the law is abused will be far rarer than scenarios where guns are taken from someone who poses a legitimate threat.

And finally, to the National Review editors' point, I agree that any federal legislation Congress may pass should be focused on compelling states to adopt these laws, not trying to run some huge program from D.C. The more local, the better.

So, would this be my top priority? Probably not. But I do think, if we follow existing models that appear effective, there are ways to implement red flag laws that reduce gun violence (and self harm) while also ensuring the system isn't abused.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.

Here’s what you can do when a loved one is severely depressed.

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Your questions, answered.

Q: I believe that politics are extremely polarized in an unhealthy way. But, at the same time, I support politicians like Bernie Sanders and AOC that are considered "far left". I love Tangle, read the Blindspot Report and try to stick to balanced media sources. Is that all for nothing if I'm advocating for a candidate that some people would consider "extremist"?

— Manuel from Australia

Tangle: I love this question, because it comes from someone who is clearly thinking about their role in the discourse (even though you don't live in America!) and is trying to get out of their bubble.

My answer is no. I don't think you are part of the problem. But that comes with some caveats.

My goal with Tangle is not to moderate people. My goal is to make sure — at the very least — we understand the best arguments from the "other side." So no, I don't think it is a problem when people support politicians who are considered far left or far right. I think it's a problem when people support those politicians without engaging other ideas, and more specifically without engaging ideas about why the politicians they support may not be worthy of that support.

Put differently: It's okay to support someone other people view as more fringe, but only if you have really given the time and introspection to evaluate whether that person is worthy of your support. If you haven't, then I think it's a huge problem. And, frankly, I think if you spend a lot of time evaluating the policies and positions of a Bernie or AOC (and of "far right" politicians) you'll begin to see that they may have reasonable views in some areas and unreasonable views in others.

Zooming even further out, I'd just say this: You're better off not throwing your full support behind any specific politicians, but instead trying to form an ideology about what things you think the country should value and what role the government has in that. In today's politics, I think we are far too obsessed with individual politicians, to the point of indulging personality cults, which leaves people twisting themselves into knots to defend them, even when they're wrong. Try to form an ideology and value system, make sure you're questioning it regularly, keep engaging a wide set of political views, and then vote for people who you think best represent where you land.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

A story that matters.

Blue cities in red states say they will not enforce abortion bans or won't make enforcing them a priority, according to a new Axios report. Local officials in states like Texas, Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina, including city council members and prosecutors, have said they won't make enforcement a priority or won't enforce the bans at all. In Louisiana, district attorney Jason Roger Williams said he "will not shift priority from tackling shootings, rapes and carjackings to investigating the choices women make with regard to their own bodies." The pushback could play out in the same way "sanctuary cities” have, which don't aid in enforcing federal immigration laws. Axios has the story.


  • One. The number of suicides reduced by every 10 to 20 red flag orders that are issued, according to the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis Health.
  • 90%. The percentage of orders that were approved by a judge in Oregon, according to one researcher.
  • 18. In New York, the number of extreme risk protection orders (ERPO) used to confiscate a weapon every month.
  • 70%. In 2019, the percentage of Americans who said they "strongly" or "somewhat" support laws "allowing the police to seek a court order to temporarily take away guns if they feel a gun owner may harm themselves or others."
  • 17%. The percentage who said they "strongly" or "somewhat" opposed such a law.

Have a nice day.

Vicky Umodu made a startling discovery when she brought home her new couch from Craigslist: $36,000 in cash. The money was stuffed inside one of the cushions, and Umodu decided to immediately alert the previous owner and return the cash. When the family who had given the couch was alerted, they explained that it had belonged to a deceased member of their family and they had actually found other money — hundreds of dollars — hidden around the house. As a thank you for her honesty, they gave Umodu $2,200 and bought her a new refrigerator. ABC7 has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.