Extreme risk protection orders — also known as red flag laws — give courts the power to remove guns, temporarily, from people who may be a danger to themselves or others. But “creating these orders has met resistance in Pennsylvania, a state with a deep hunting and gun culture that was one of the first to include a right to bear arms in its constitution,” reported PA Post’s Ed Mahon and WITF’s Katie Meyer for a story that was published in the Dec. 26 LNP. PA Post, launched by WITF Public Media, focuses on state government accountability.
We have urged the passage of a strong federal red flag law (in addition to stronger federal background checks on gun sales).
But there’s no saying when or if such a law will be enacted by Congress. And so it makes sense to simultaneously push for a red flag law in Pennsylvania.
Mahon and Meyer lay out compelling evidence for why our state needs such a law, and they detail how a majority of us want such a law in Pennsylvania. They also explain why the road to passage in Harrisburg has been so difficult. Frustratingly difficult, as far as we’re concerned.
In Pennsylvania, there were more than 1,600 gun deaths in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a mortality rate higher than the national average. Easy access to guns can be a contributing factor in some homicides (especially domestic homicides) and some suicides.
Other states, responding to the epidemic of gun violence, are moving faster than Pennsylvania on the passage of red flag laws. Much of the legislation happened in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. Seventeen states and Washington, D.C., now have red flag laws, according to Mahon and Meyer, with those in Nevada, Hawaii and Colorado taking effect this month.
“The particulars of the laws vary by state,” Mahon and Meyer explained. “Generally, they allow someone ... to request that a court temporarily take weapons from a person who may be dangerous or suicidal. Judges can decide to take away someone’s gun rights without the gun owner having a chance to mount a defense, but only at first.
“After the initial seizure, the subject of the order is generally able to appeal and have a full hearing before the judge, in which the gun owner can make a case for reversing the original order. The judge then decides whether to give the weapons back or continue the ban for a longer period, often three months to a year.”
In Pennsylvania’s proposed red flag laws (House Bill 1075 and Senate Bill 90), family members, household members or law enforcement officers could request that the court temporarily take guns from individuals presenting a danger to themselves or others.
We think that’s appropriate.
We believe in the need for extreme risk protection orders here.
So do many citizens and disparate groups in Pennsylvania.
According to an October Franklin & Marshall College poll, 62% of Pennsylvania registered voters surveyed said they strongly favored having a red flag law and another 18% somewhat favored such a measure.
That’s 80% of those surveyed favoring a proposed law. We don’t see 80% supporting much of anything these days.
Additionally, passage of a red flag law “is a top priority for the Pennsylvania chapter of Moms Demand Action and CeaseFirePA,” Mahon and Meyer wrote. “(Those groups have) organized rallies in the Capitol and across the state.”
And there’s this: Law enforcement groups, including the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, have endorsed red flag laws.
The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, after having initial concerns about due process and the proposed standard to be met for temporary gun removal, worked with lawmakers to tweak the bill’s language and “now has a neutral stance on the measure,” Mahon and Meyer reported.
The National Rifle Association remains opposed, but that’s hardly a surprise.
What’s frustrating is that there’s a good level of support from both Republicans and Democrats in Harrisburg, but efforts are still stalled.
“In a state Capitol that sees most political debates break down on party lines, the proposed extreme risk protection bill is strikingly bipartisan,” Mahon and Meyer wrote. “The main division rests within the Republican party, between the more moderate suburban wing and the libertarian-minded, NRA-endorsed rural bloc.”
We would think that having some Republicans, most Democrats, advocacy groups, law enforcement, and 80% of Pennsylvanians (per the F&M survey) in favor of a bill would be enough — more than enough — to spur rapid passage.
But this is Harrisburg and our bloated and byzantine Legislature, where it’s still possible for a few influence-wielding lawmakers to grind things to a halt.
“One powerful committee chairman, state Rep. Ron Kauffman, R-Franklin, pledged to never bring up the measure for a vote,” Mahon and Meyer wrote.
That’s wrong. And infuriating.
A red flag law wouldn’t solve all of our gun violence. But it’s one sensible step Pennsylvania can take — following in the footsteps of other states — to help save lives and reduce suicide deaths.
We urge our lawmakers to get this across the finish line in 2020.