State Sen. Lena Taylor
Op Ed

America Needs “Red Flag Laws”

Laws would allow judges to prohibit a person from having or buying firearms in certain circumstances.

By - Aug 8th, 2019 02:41 pm
Hanging sculpture of guns. Photo by Craig Mastantuono.

Hanging sculpture of guns. Photo by Craig Mastantuono.

In the United States we’ve been taught that the color red can mean danger. A flashing red light signals a need to stop. Most of us sense internal red flags that let us know that something may be wrong. In Wisconsin, Attorney General Josh Kaul is seeking legislation often referred to as the “Red Flag Law” that allows the courts to do the same thing.

In general, the law would allow a judge – at the request of law enforcement officers or, in some states, a relative – to temporarily prohibit a person from having or buying firearms if the individual poses a significant danger to themselves or others. Although some of the details vary from state to state, legislatures have passed these Red Flag laws as a means to deter gun violence.

Currently, seventeen states and the District of Columbia have passed such laws and an additional twenty states are looking into passage. Neighboring Indiana first passed the law in 2005 and Kaul is working to get Wisconsin finally on board with this life-saving legislation. A May article in USA Today provided data that more than 1,700 court orders were issued in 2018 regarding gun owners that presented a significant threat. The duration of the seizures ranged from weeks to a year, but the goal of stopping potential harm was clear.

For those that are leery, it wasn’t just courts making these types of decisions. Earlier this year, the New York Police Department (NYPD) made headlines for taking nine handguns from four active duty police officers.  After a domestic situation involving the officers spilled over into the workplace, the NYPD seized the guns under a section of the Patrol Guide that permits impounding firearms in “non-disciplinary cases,” including those involving “stress as a result of family or other situations.” NYPD saw red flags that the situation concerning these officers could potentially go sideways and pre-emptively decided to act to minimize the damage.

Yet, the National Rifle Association has insisted on making this an attack on 2nd amendment gun rights. The NRA has also generated opposition to these measures citing them as violations of the 4th amendment right to due process. But even the gun lobby’s predicted backlash didn’t negate the acknowledgment that something must be done about the ready access and type of weapons made available to buyers. Republican lawmakers like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), who announced in the aftermath of the El Paso and Dayton shootings, that he would be introducing legislation with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) to create a federal grant program for law enforcement to work in conjunction with mental health professionals in the application of Red Flag laws. Graham talked about the ability for “quick action.”

Actions such as these, while seemingly lofty in the current environment, fall short in the eyes of some. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) has said that Red Flag legislation is not enough without accompanying universal background checks, further citing that Republican proposals such as Graham’s do not actually require states to do anything and leave room for the NRA to step in to weaken proposals. In Wisconsin, Republican elected officials continue to do nothing. They continue to ignore their own constituents, who support universal background checks for firearm purchases by as much as 84%.

Yet again, American lives were forever impacted by the negligence of partisan gatekeepers in protecting them safe from mass gun violence. We may be a long way from bi-partisan action that surmounts the NRA’s toxic grip, but Red Flag legislation remains a crucial and possible step forward in this pursuit.

Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, is a member of the Wisconsin State Senate.

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