By David Lias
I received an email from Sen. Stace Nelson Tuesday, and there’s a good chance you already know what it’s about, because it appears every news organization in South Dakota also received Nelson’s message.
His email announces that 25 current and former South Dakota Republican legislators sent letters to President Donald Trump, Sen. John Thune, Sen. Mike Rounds, and Rep. Dusty Johnson opposing proposed legislation to provide taxpayer funded grants to encourage states to enact "red flag" laws similar to those enacted by 17 states such as California, New York, Maryland, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, and others.
I’ll be honest. I’ve read of other ideas to try to combat gun violence in our country. Things like background checks, for example.
As CNN reported in February 2018, the nation's gun buying background check system is supposed to keep firearms out of reach for dangerous individuals. But it's not meant to catch early warning signs like those exhibited by Nikolas Cruz, the shooter who killed 17 at a South Florida high school on Valentine's Day 2018.
After the shooting, details emerged about Cruz's extensive presence online. He brandished guns and knives while making racist remarks against Muslims. And, it appears, he even made explicit threats that foreshadowed his massacre.
Cruz passed the FBI's background check to be able to purchase his AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle in 2018, according to a U.S. official briefed on the investigation.
He was able to pass the background check because the system screens for certain indicators of past violence, misconduct, and mental health issues — but not all. The scope of review is narrow and would not capture all aspects of Cruz's profile, even if it included explicit, public threats against students and school disciplinary behavior that led to his expulsion from high school.
What, or more precisely, who would be better than the FBI in identifying aspects of a person’s profile? A close friend or family member, perhaps. They are better situated to spot the “red flag” that indicates it might be a good idea for a friend or family member who is exhibiting certain behaviors – behaviors similar to Cruz’s for example – to not possess firearms.
That’s where extreme risk protection orders (ERPO), more commonly referred to as "red flag" laws may come into play to hopefully make all of us a bit safer.
According to CBS News, red flag laws allow courts to issue orders to temporarily confiscate the firearms of individuals deemed to be a risk to others or themselves.
Depending on the state, ERPO laws allow family members and law enforcement to ask a state court judge to issue an order that confiscates the guns of an individual who they believe poses a threat to their safety. ERPO petitioners must present evidence to the court on why the individual poses a threat to others, as well as to himself or herself.
Nelson makes it sound like red flag laws are nothing more than a government plot to take our guns away.
In his press release, Nelson says red flag laws do not work, are counterproductive, threaten the rights of innocent law-abiding citizens and do not address the core problems contributing to these mass murders. "It is impossible to predict or prevent someone from committing murder under these laws. If they are in fact intent on mass murder, there is no way to prevent them from using a knife, or a vehicle, or a myriad of other lethal weapons,” Nelson said.
What he doesn’t mention is that ERPO laws have been around for a while in some states. According to CBS, Indiana and Connecticut have had such laws in place for over a decade, meaning that there is some research on the law's efficacy in stemming gun violence.
Nelson also doesn’t mention that there’s evidence that ERPOs save lives.
After Connecticut bolstered its enforcement for the law, first enacted in 1999, a study found that the state's firearm suicide rate declined by 14 percent. Between 2005, when the law was enacted in Indiana, and 2015, the firearm suicide rate decreased by 7.5 percent.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, a pro-gun control group backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, ERPO laws have been invoked several times to prevent potential violence against schools. In Seattle, Washington, a regional firearms enforcement unit has recovered 200 firearms from 48 orders.
Ally Jarmanning, a reporter for WBUR in Boston, Massachusetts, told CBSN that 14 individuals have had their firearms confiscated under the new ERPO law enacted in 2018.
Nelson and the 24 current and former state legislators likely were compelled to announce they’ve sent letters to officials in Washington, D.C. opposing red flag laws because President Trump, the leader of the Republican Party, of which most South Dakota legislators are members, said “…I have called for red flag laws” during the brief statement he made following the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio earlier this month.
An opinion piece in the Aug. 9 Washington Post notes, too, that Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) said that “state red flag laws will provide the tools for law enforcement to do something about many of these situations before it’s too late.” Our Sen. John Thune said that he was “confident Congress will be able to find common ground on the so-called ‘red flag’ issue.”
Jeffrey Swanson, a sociologist and professor in psychiatry and and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, notes that “we cannot expect ERPOs to catch the next mass shooter or quickly halt the spate of public massacres. Or rather, if they do, it will be more by happy accident than design.”
He adds, however, that ERPOs do save lives.
As it happens, the people who benefit most are the ones planning to kill themselves.
The evidence on suicide prevention is a good enough reason for states to enact ERPOs and for the federal government to incentivize them with infrastructure grants, Swanson writes. “In Connecticut and Indiana, researchers like me found that for every 10 to 20 gun-removal actions under such laws, one life was saved through an averted suicide. In almost every state where an ERPO bill has passed, lawmakers were responding to a public outcry over a horrifying mass-casualty shooting.”
Nationwide, in 2017, firearms accounted for 50.57 percent of all suicide deaths, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Nelson’s press release, and the media attention it has inspired, may be much ado about nothing. It appears to be mainly driven by Trump’s brief mention of red flag laws earlier this month. I may be mistaken, but it appears that the details of a federal red flag law are still being worked on; it likely may include the idea of the feds giving infrastructure grants to states that enact the law.
But that’s it. The mere fact that only 17 states currently have such laws indicates it’s was a decision made on the state, not the national level, and it likely will stay that way.
And, even though there is evidence that ERPOs do save lives by keeping guns from troubled individuals and as an added benefit helps save lives by averting suicides, there’s likely little chance that a red flag law will see the light of day in South Dakota.
That’s a shame.