Editorial: Red Flag laws have their own red flags

The Detroit News

Lawmakers responding to the call to "do something" about gun violence following two mass shootings over the weekend seem to be settling on so-called Red Flag legislation as the answer to the public's demand for action.

Demonstrators gather to protest the arrival of President Donald Trump outside Miami Valley Hospital after a mass shooting that occurred in the Oregon District early Sunday morning, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio.

Both in Washington and Lansing proposals are slated for debate on laws that will provide a preemptive avenue for separating individuals who are deemed dangerous from their firearms.

While it's unlikely such legislation would have sidetracked the shooters in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, it does set lawmakers in motion on an issue that has risen to the top of the national consciousness, and could lead to a broader discussion on more effective measures.

But they should proceed with caution. Red Flag laws have their own set of red flags that must be addressed.

Seventeen states have already adopted versions of Red Flag laws. Little research has been done to gauge their effectiveness. Two studies out of Indiana and Connecticut, which have the longest standing Red Flag laws, found a slight impact on reducing run-related suicides, but are inconclusive on how they impacted shootings overall. 

President Donald Trump speaks about the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, Monday in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington.

The laws allow family members or law enforcement agencies to seek a court order temporarily removing firearms from the possession of those deemed an immediate threat to themselves or others.

Neither the Dayton nor El Paso shooter likely would have come under the law's reach, since neither appear to have had recent incidents that caught the attention of authorities or kinfolk. The Dayton suspect did exhibit violent, anti-social tendencies as a teen, but apparently not publicly in recent years.

Still, the goal of keeping guns out of the wrong hands is a worthy one, and Red Flag laws have merit -- if they are properly enacted. And that's a key stipulation.

First, Congress is not the right venue for adopting such laws. The federal government has jurisdiction over the commerce of firearms, and thus is within its bounds to expand background checks or adopt other regulations on gun sales. But the decision to temporarily remove guns from an individual via a restraining order is a state matter, and the cases should be heard in state courts where both sides have easier access.

Congress can pass measures encouraging states to pass such laws, but crafting the actual ordinances should be left to state legislatures.

Any law that is passed in Michigan or elsewhere should come with layers of due process to protect the constitutional rights of the gun owner. It is easy to see how these laws could be abused in contentious divorces or child custody cases, and every precaution should be taken to assure that can't happen.

Care also should be taken to avoid the laws serving to stigmatize the mentally ill, or discouraging them from seeking treatment. Visiting a therapist should not be among the grounds for applying the Red Flag provision. 

Specific steps for appealing the removal and restoring the rights of the gun owner once the threat subsides must be clearly spelled out in the law.

Of all the proposals for containing mass shootings, Red Flag laws enjoy the most bipartisan support and, if properly implemented, are among the least offensive to the Second Amendment.

But no one should pretend they are the magic formula for ending the sort of carnage America witnessed last weekend.