Maryland’s red-flag law has enjoyed a successful first two years, getting guns out of the hands of people who are a danger to themselves or to others.
But in the aftermath of a recent mass shooting in Indiana, now may be a good time for the supporters of the law to reassess and make any changes that would improve it.
Brandon Hole, who shot and killed eight people at a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis, might have been prevented from purchasing the semiautomatic rifles used in the attack if a prosecutor had invoked the state’s red-flag law.
Hole’s mother told police last year that her son was suicidal and that he might try to confront police with a shotgun to commit “suicide by cop.” As a result, police seized the shotgun.
But, according to news reports, the senior county prosecutor in Indianapolis said his office had decided not to seek a protective order which could have prohibited Hole from buying more guns. The prosecutor said the law was flawed, with short filing deadlines and limits on getting evidence such as medical records.
Maryland police and prosecutors have been aggressive in using our law. The Baltimore Sun reported last October that, in the two years since the law took effect in 2018:
“Maryland courts have 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.”
Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin, a strong advocate for the law who trained most of the state’s police departments on the law, told the Sun: “If these were not in place, there potentially could have been some additional suicides.”
Not much research has been done on the effectiveness of the red-flag laws in getting guns out of the hands of unstable individuals, but the Sun cited a 2017 Duke University study of Connecticut’s gun removal law that estimated that for every 10 to 20 seizures, one suicide is prevented.
Maryland judges approved 55 percent of the orders sought in the first two years. Gun rights advocates said that was alarmingly high, but Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith of Prince George’s County, the prime sponsor of the law, said she thinks the acceptance rate actually shows the law is working well, noting only about half of the gun owners had their weapons confiscated.
“I’m really proud of the Maryland law,” she said. “We’ve had great usage, in some jurisdictions more than others … It’s a good tool to start fighting this epidemic of gun violence.”
One problem identified by Valentino-Smith is that health care providers, who were specifically included in the law as a group that could seek protective orders, are not using the power.
“The success of the law is up to petitioners,” she said. “People have an obligation to use it. Health care providers are not using it enough.”
The delegate resisted the suggestion that the law might need to be modified to be stronger. She said she thinks any issues arise from people not knowing enough about the law, or about how to use it.
We respect Del. Valentino-Smith’s opinion, but we encourage her and the other authors of the Maryland law to take a look at the problems in the Indiana case and then meet with police and health professionals to assess how the law is working in the real world.
We continue to believe it is vital to take guns out of the hands of mentally ill individuals who represent a danger to themselves or others. The red-flag law seems to be saving lives, particularly among people who are suicidal. But we should also try to make it as effective as possible as a tool for reducing gun violence.