As Ohio lawmakers debate a “red flag” law to reduce gun violence in the wake of the deadly Oregon District mass shooting, they can look to neighboring Indiana to see how such extreme protection orders have operated in a Midwestern state for more than a decade.
Data on red flag weapon seizures is spread out among courts in Indiana’s 92 counties — making it difficult to take a comprehensive look at how often it’s used — but a June 2018 study found that the law has made an impact on reducing suicides by firearm.
Researchers at the University of Indianapolis reported that Indiana’s red flag law led to a 7.5 percent decline in firearm suicides, relative to expected rates, and the study estimated that 383 firearm suicides were prevented in the 10 years following enactment of the law.
In 2005, Indiana lawmakers adopted the “Jake Laird Law,” named after a police officer shot dead by a heavily armed man who months earlier showed warning signs that he could be dangerous. The law allows police to seize weapons with or without a warrant if someone is deemed dangerous. Court hearings are held within 14 days of a seizure.
Effectiveness of red flag laws
Aaron Kivisto, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Indianapolis and lead author of the study, said that most research on Extreme Risk Protection Order laws has focused on suicide, in part because most of the weapons seizures are prompted by concerns about suicide.
Less is known about the effectiveness ERPO laws have on preventing homicides, including mass shootings, Kivisto said.
“That said, even if ERPOs turn out to have little effect on mass shootings, the fact that we know they save lives through preventing suicide is reason enough to utilize these laws,” he said.
Suicides account for more than 60 percent of the gun deaths in Ohio and across the nation. Between 2007 and 2018, there were 15,406 firearms deaths in Ohio: 9,446 suicides, 5,642 homicides, 177 accidental deaths, and 141 undetermined reasons, according to the Ohio Department of Health data.
During that same time in the Miami Valley, there were 1,943 people killed by firearms.
On Aug. 4, as Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine spoke at a vigil for shooting victims in Dayton’s Oregon District hours after a gunman killed nine people and wounded 26 others, a large section of the group chanted for him to “do something” about gun violence. Days later, he rolled out a 17-point plan to address gun violence, including increasing access to mental health care and adopting a “safety protection order” law — also known as ERPO or red flag laws.
The governor said he expects to unveil details of the proposed bill very soon.
Gun rights groups, though, generally oppose red flag laws because they view them as ineffective and an infringement on 2nd and 4th Amendment rights. Rather than seize property from someone in a crisis, it’d be better to get them the mental health treatment they need, according to the Buckeye Firearms Association.
Brien Dyer, a retired psychiatrist who lives in Dayton and supports gun reforms, noted that mental illness is not the root cause of all gun violence. “It’s not just the mentally ill. It’s a lot of people who have a lot of different reasons for behaving the way they do.”
Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, has said the DeWine administration is working to address due process concerns that have proven to be a stumbling block for previous red flag bills.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio said many ERPO laws contain provisions that the ACLU finds concerning. The ACLU of Ohio will look at: what due process is afforded, who can petition for an ERPO, what legal standards must be met by petitioners and the courts, and whether the accused has a right to counsel.
18 red flag laws nationwide
A Dayton Daily News analysis of the 18 red flag laws on the booksacross the country found that most allow for police or family members to petition for a seizure order; an initial temporary order is issued without prior notice to the gun owner; full hearings are held within 21 days or the gun owner may request a hearing; long-term orders are usually for six to 12 months.
For example, in Indiana, data show that 63 percent of the firearms were retained at the initial hearing, the case was dismissed in 29 percent of the ERPO hearings and there is no clear data in the remaining cases, according to Kivisto said.
He added that states adopting ERPO laws now are providing a mechanism for family members to petition the court, and there is more public awareness about the laws. “Without family members being aware of these laws, however, they can become largely ink on a page rather than something with the potential to save lives,” Kivisto said. “The intentional dissemination we’re seeing about these laws is very promising.”
‘No one called police to report Adam Lanza’
In 1999, Connecticut was the first state to enact a red flag law.
“That law has sat on the books, unamended, for 20 years, which is important because it’s never been successfully challenged in the court. Not under the 2nd amendment, not under the 4th amendment against search and seizures,” said Mike Lawlor, a Connecticut lawmaker from 1986 to 2010, and now an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven.
Lawlor, who helped craft the law, said he expected it to be used infrequently — and initially it was. But following the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007 and again after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, people began calling police to report armed and dangerous people. Lawlor attributes the uptick to higher awareness to the fact that the law exists.
Since its adoption, police in Connecticut have obtained seizure warrants more than 1,400 times, he said. He noted that the affidavits sworn by police to get the warrants detail imminent threats. “This is not a ‘time to mess around’ situation,” he said.
The law isn’t perfect, especially if no one asks police to apply it.
No one called police to report Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old man who shot and killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, even though Connecticut’s red flag law was in effect.
“If they had sought a red flag warrant, they might have been able to get it and prevented that tragedy,” Lawlor said.
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